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Ed Stocker: No forgiveness in a country haunted by past injustices

View from Buenos Aires

Nearly 30 years since the last military dictatorship ended in Argentina, the country is still grappling with its past as though it took place yesterday.

As a Buenos Aires court handed down sentences to former military officials on Wednesday – responsible for kidnap, torture and murder in the ESMA, a naval academy turned torture centre during the 1976-83 junta – family members, campaigners and survivors of the ESMA broke into a round of applause and hugged each other. After so many years, they had justice.

"I asked myself how it was possible that these men were capable of kidnapping people, torturing them and then throwing them alive into the sea," says Ana Maria Careaga, whose mother, a founding member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights movement, was kidnapped and killed in 1977 and was one of the trial's key cases. "Hearing the name of my mother read out each time they convicted the defendants really felt like justice."

A giant screen had been erected in front of the courthouse so that those unable to squeeze into the viewing galleries could follow the case. After the verdict, the mood outside turned festive as a cumbia band struck up and a crowd of several hundred people waved flags and danced. The screen showed a picture of one of the trial's protagonists, Alfredo Astiz – known as the "blond angel of death" – sentenced to life imprisonment. The slogan below read: "Today I saw an angel fall".

For Victor Basterra, a survivor of the ESMA, trials need to keep taking place because the consequences of the dictatorship are still being felt today. "Before in Argentina there was a culture of solidarity. All of this had to be wiped out to prepare the ground for what happened during the dictatorship," he says.

"We always say: neither forget, pardon nor reconcile. These national traitors need to pay for what they did so that we have a more just society."