Two notorious former Argentine navy officers Alfredo Astiz and “Tigre” Acosta were sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday night after being found guilty of kidnapping, torture and the forced disappearances of many detainees in the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) during the last dictatorship (1976/1983).
As the sentence was read in the courtroom the crowd waiting outside celebrated and cheered which almost caused it to be suspended.
Astiz, who was also known as the baby faced “death angel” acted under the false identity of Gustavo Niño, infiltrated the works of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in 1977 and “marked” his victims, who were later tortured at the ESMA and thrown alive into the sea from helicopters.
Among them were the founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Azucena Villaflor and the two French nuns Leónie Duquet and Alice Domon.
Other oppressors such as Antonio Pernías, Oscar Montes and Raúl Scheller were also sentenced to life in prison.
A long line of people was seen outside the Buenos Aires courtroom since early in the afternoon, as many of them wanted to hear the reading live. Relatives of the accused were seen standing in line next to family members of those who had disappeared.
Early on Wednesday morning, three of the accused were given the chance to provide the court with their last statements before the reading.
Captain Aztiz was also involved in the Falklands conflict in 1982 and signed the surrender of the South Georgia garrison to the advancing British Task Force that finally recovered the Islands in June. He was flown a prisoner to the UK, but later returned before France requested his extradition on the case of the killing of the two nuns.
The Argentine media has always pointed out that in spite of his defence arguments that as a naval officer he was “trained to kill”, he surrendered in South Georgia “without firing a single shot”.
Astiz was born in November 1951 in Mar del Plata and following the 1976 coup was commissioned to ESMA in the north of Buenos Aires city where the main clandestine jail of the de facto government operated.
He belonged to Task Force 332 and was responsible for innumerable kidnappings that ended at ESMA, many of them to never return. Argentine human rights organizations estimate 5.000 people were detained at ESMA but only 100 survived to tell what went on in those dungeons.
In 1986/87 Astiz was benefited with a general amnesty bill but in 1990 a French court sentenced his to life in absentia for the killing of the two nuns, Domon and Duquet. Seven years later the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon ordered his arrest and extradition together with 44 other Argentine officers charged with genocide.
In 1998 he was discharged in dishonour from the Navy, of which he said to be so proud to belong. He was interviewed several times and admitted admiring the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla Che Guevara and not at all repentant of having fought the “anti Argentine Marxist terrorists”.
But 2003 marked the beginning of the end when the Argentine congress annulled the amnesty bill and torture and human rights abuse cases involving military officers were reopened, including Astiz and most of his fellow officers.
In early 2004 he was sent to a military jail and two years later his involvement in the shooting and disappearance of the Swedish teenager Dagmar Hagelin was reopened. In 2007 an Italian court also condemned him to life imprisonment in absentia and he was transferred to a common jail to wait for the mega-ESMA trial.