- Title: FILE: "Death flights" trial opens in Argentina
- Date: 28th November 2012
- Summary: BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA (RECENT) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF ARGENTINE JOURNALIST MIRIAM LEWIN LOOKING AT VIDEO FOOTAGE OF THIS FIRST PLANE PROVEN TO BE USED FOR FLIGHTS TO THROW PRISONERS TO THEIR DEATHS, MODEL "SKYVAN"
- Embargoed: 13th December 2012 12:00
- Location: Argentina
- Country: Argentina
- Topics: History,Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA743V75IHILX34YGLCFR11EMLX
- Story Text: In Argentina on Wednesday (November 28), eight pilots accused of taking part in "death flights" during the Dirty War era went on trial in a process that is expected to last two years.
They are part of a group of 68 officials from an Argentine naval facility, ESMA, who are facing charges of human rights abuses.
The background to the death flights case lies within the cloistered walls of the Santa Cruz Church in Buenos Aires. During the military dictatorship, which ran from 1976 to 1983, a group of women began to meet, united by the disappearance of their children - kidnapped and imprisoned by state security forces.
But they were betrayed. Many of the women were themselves kidnapped and killed.
Among them were two French nuns Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon - pictured here after already been taken prisoner in a clandestine detention centre.
Some of the mothers who were left went on to form the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an activist group which protested against the military government and in turn was targeted by security forces.
Nobody had been able to prove what the military had been doing with all of the people it had kidnapped until killed, until this woman - Argentine investigative journalist Miriam Lewin - stumbled on something unexpected.
It had long been suspected - but not proven - that the military dropped hundreds of bodies off planes into the ocean.
Lewis, who was also kidnapped and imprisoned during the dictatorship, became the first person to track down and find one of the planes that was used for the so-called 'death flights.' She found it in Fort Lauderdale in the United States, in the hands of a private owner.
The boxy, 19-seater aircraft called a Skyvan had been sold by the Argentine coastal guard but it still had its old flight records, dating back to the dictatorship, with the names of the pilots who carried out the flights.
"When I first showed these records to people in human rights organizations they said it was golden find and that nobody had ever gotten so close to identifying the pilots of the 'death flights,'" Lewis told Reuters.
The French nuns and other detainees were held in a naval facility called the Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA.
Only 200 people detainees survived out of the more than 5,000 prisoners held in the ESMA.
It is thought that from here many of the detainees were taken to be dropped in the death flights.
During the dictatorship passers-by didn't know that the building, standing in full view of the public, was a clandestine detention centre.
It was founded by Admiral Emilio Massera, seen here speaking to the head of the dictatorship, General Rafael Videla.
So far the only person who has been convicted of the 'death flights' is Adolfo Scilingo, who broke down and confessed to his crimes:
"Throwing out sleeping human beings, I don't know. Do you know someone who could get over that? We are human beings and what we were throwing out were human beings," Scilingo said during his confession.
When investigations into the death flights got underway a police report from 1977 was uncovered which detailed the discovery of an unidentified body that had washed up on the shore.
A police autopsy on the body concluded at the time that the person had died from multiple traumatic injuries caused by a fall from altitude.
DNA testing later proved the body belong to the French nun Leonie Duquet.
Former detainees say the military had tried to cover its tracks however with photos like this: showing the two French nuns as though they had been kidnapped by the guerrilla group the Montoneros, and not the by the government.
Ricardo Coquet, says he was forced by guards to prepared the fake Montoneros sign the nuns were posed with while he was a prisoner in the ESMA.
He says he saw the French nuns and like many others they were taken away, never to be seen again.
"Every Wednesday the guards would come and they made us all head up to the [the section call the] 'Capucha' and the guards would start yelling out numbers. I was 896. If they called out your name, you were taken. So you had to stand in the middle of the hallway, with your hand on the shoulder of the prisoner in front of you, to form a chain and then they all went walking off with their feet in shackles. And then, they told them they were being given a tranquilizer so they didn't make any trouble in the transfer, because they were going to travel far," Coquet told Reuters.
The flights took off every Wednesday from Aeroparque airport, located in the middle of Buenos Aires.
The lawyer for the prosecution the case against the pilots, Horacio Mendez Carreras, says the victims were given two doses of sedatives before they were stripped and thrown overboard into the River Plate.
"Every flight, according to what Scilingo said, were made up of a pilot, a co-pilot and five crew: one officer, one sub-officer, two corporals and a doctor, who was responsible for giving the injections. Because in the ESMA they gave them a weak tranquilizer and then when they got into the plane they took off their clothes, took off the manacles, and then they gave them the final injection. They threw them out sleeping and alive. They threw them into the sea alive," Carreras said.
A monument to the victims of the dictatorship has been erected on the shores of the River Plate, their names engraved into an immense wall.
According to a government report, more than 11,000 people died or disappeared but human rights groups say the number is closer to 30,000.
How many were thrown overboard in the death flights is uncertain.
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