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Alfredo Ignacio Astiz (born 8 November 1951) was a captain and intelligence officer in the Argentine Navy during the dictatorial rule of Jorge Rafael Videla in the Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional (19761983). He was known as El Angel Rubio de la Muerte (the "Blond Angel of Death").
He was a member of GT332 (Task Force 332) based in the Naval Mechanics School (ESMA) in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War of the late 1970s. GT332 was involved in the deaths of many of the 9,000 to 30,000 victims of forced disappearance during this period, and ESMA became a secret concentration camp where as many as five thousand political prisoners were held, tortured and "disappeared".
Astiz, a specialist in the infiltration of human rights NGOs, was charged in 1976 with the kidnapping of Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. He surrendered to British forces at the beginning of the 1982 Falklands War, and although he was wanted by Sweden and France for the forced disappearances in 1977 of Dagmar Ingrid Hagelin, a 17-yr old Argentine-born girl holding Swedish citizenship, and of two French nuns, Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, he was repatriated to Argentina. A French court convicted him in absentia to a life sentence in 1990.
Following the Argentine Supreme Court's 2003 decision that the amnesty enacted during the transition to democracy (Ley de Obediencia Debida and Ley de Punto Final) was unconstitutional, legal action against Astiz has been renewed in Argentina.
Kidnapping and torture
Using the false name of Gustavo Nino, Astiz specialized in infiltrating peaceful organisations protesting against extrajudicial execution, identifying their members and, after a sufficient number had been identified, kidnapping them. In 1982 a human rights lawyer named Martin Gras, a survivor of the many Astiz kidnapped, claimed that Astiz was a charming man who rarely tortured or murdered those he kidnapped but merely handed them on to others in the system. Yet Astiz was well thought of within the armed forces for his effective interrogation techniques, and in 1979 he was sent to the Argentine embassy in South Africa to give a series of seminars on torture techniques to the South African security police. While there, he also participated in a number of discussion groups to exchange ideas regarding methods of interrogation.
In 1977 Astiz kidnapped Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti, the founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a non-violent group of mothers protesting against the disappearance of their children. Neither she, nor any of the other early members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo kidnapped by Astiz on the same night, were ever seen again. While Astiz kidnapped hundreds of people during 1976 and 1977, it was his kidnap and mistreatment of three foreigners that was later to cause him minor inconvenience as a prisoner of war.
On the 27 January 1977 Dagmar Hagelin, a 17-year-old girl having Swedish citizenship through her father, the Swedish citizen Ragnar-Erland Hagelin, who has been tirelessly battling to bring Astiz to justice since the early 1980s (her mother was an Argentine called Buccicardi), was shot and wounded by Astiz while attempting to escape; it is said that Astiz mistook her for a Montoneros activist to whom she bore some physical resemblance and who was a mutual acquaintance of fellow-activist Norma Susana Burgos. Witnesses saw her later at the ESMA torture center and alleged that Alfredo Astiz was in charge of her interrogation. According to the Argentine Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs tasked to follow up Swedish complaints at the time of Hagelin's shooting and abduction, Captain Jorge Eduardo Acosta, the commander of GT332, stated "setting her free is out of the question. We must not give in to public opinion. We must appear strong" apparently because of the seriousness of the injuries caused by Dagmar's shooting that had rendered her paralyzed, also affecting her cognitive abilities. Ines Carazzo, then a detainee enslaved and regularly raped by Captain Antonio Pernias, another GT332 officer, claims that Acosta ordered that Hagelin be put to death in a "death flight". Hagelin joined the ranks of the "disappeared" and is thought to have been killed and cremated at the ESMA. There is no direct evidence that Alfredo Astiz had any part in the affair after shooting and kidnapping Hagelin, but there is also no evidence of who killed her, who interrogated her or even whether she was interrogated at all. As a result of the very nature of "disappearances" cases, such evidence is notoriously hard to find, which explains why Astiz has been charged with only a few of the crimes he is suspected of having carried out.
Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, two French nuns, were members of a support group for victims of forced disappearance which was infiltrated by Astiz. A forged photograph aimed at showing that they had been kidnapped by the Peronist leftist group the Montoneros was leaked to the graphic media before their assassination. Astiz kidnapped them in December 1977 and was witnessed torturing them by beating them, immersing them in water and applying electrified cattle prods to their breasts and into their genitals and mouths. Their bodies were identified (along with that of Azucena Villaflor) by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (also known by their finding and identification of Che Guevara's corpse in Bolivia) in August 2005.
Lieutenant Commander Alfredo Astiz commanded a special team of fifteen Tactical Divers Group (frogmen), dubbed los lagartos (the lizards), which carried out the first act of aggression in the Falklands War. On 19 March 1982 they landed on South Georgia, under the guise of the workers of the Argentine scrap metal dealer Constantino Davidoff. Officially they were there to scrap three derelict whaling stations at Leith Harbour which had been purchased by their "employer" in 1979. Instead they dressed up in uniform and raised the Argentine flag in full view of a British Antarctic Survey party.
The next day, 20 March, the local head of the British Antarctic Survey handed Astiz a note transcribed from a radio message by the Governor of the Falklands. The note told Astiz to take down his flag and leave. Astiz took down the flag but did not leave. Later that day, HMS Endurance, the Royal Navy's ice patrol ship, was dispatched from Stanley on the Falklands to Grytviken, the main British Antarctic Survey base on South Georgia, with 22 Royal Marines ordered to evict him. They arrived on 23 March, hours before a number of Argentine marines landed near Grytviken. More Argentine marines turned up over the following days and there was an armed clash at Grytviken resulting in the Royal Marines surrendering and their eventual repatriation to the UK. Astiz, a junior officer, was not in command of this operation and neither he nor his frogmen were involved in either this or later fighting.
After a number of disasters due to poor weather and equipment on the 21 April and 22 April, a force of Royal Marines with good naval gunfire support forced the capitulation of the Argentine garrison at Grytviken on 23 April. TV crews missed the signing of the surrender document by the Argentine commander because it occurred so rapidly after the end of the fighting, but Astiz insisted on signing a surrender document for himself and his small band even though they were covered by the surrender of his commanding officer. The face and name of Alfredo Astiz was, incorrectly, splashed over the world media as the commander of the garrison on South Georgia. This publicity led to an erroneous Rambo-like image, but soon caused problems for Astiz.
Astiz is known to have committed several war crimes during this period, notably attempting to lure Royal Navy helicopters to land on a helipad he had previously mined, after he had surrendered to British forces. The pilots were suspicious, and landed elsewhere.
Astiz also attempted to encourage Royal Marines across a minefield, after he had surrendered. The mines did not function correctly, as their trigger mechanisms had been frozen solid by the sub-zero weather conditions. Astiz was never tried for these crimes.
Prisoners of war
Soon after the British recapture of South Georgia, Nicanor Costa Mendez, the Argentine Foreign Minister, stated that Argentina was technically in a state of war with the UK. At about the same time an Argentine prisoner (Felix Artuso) was shot dead by a Royal Marine who mistakenly thought he was trying to scuttle a captured submarine. The UK informed Argentina, through Brazilian diplomats, that a board of inquiry would be convened under the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The next day the UK claimed the Argentine prisoners were not prisoners of war because they were taken before Argentina declared hostilities. Six days later they changed their mind. In a 1983 article,Meyer "Liability of Prisoners of War for Offences committed prior to Capture: the Astiz Affair", International Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 1983, pp. 94980. Meyer opines that this was because the UK had already implied the Argentine detainees were prisoners of war by applying provisions of the Geneva Conventions. It was justified by the reference in the common articles to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 to their applicability to "declared war or any other armed conflict" between signatories.
About three weeks after they were captured the UK announced it would repatriate all 151 soldiers and 39 civilians, five of whom were not Argentine citizens, held in detention on South Georgia. The wide publicity surrounding the surrender of Astiz had already prompted first the Swedish and then the French to make the UK aware that Astiz was accused of criminal acts against their nationals. As they were being shipped to Ascension Island to be handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and flown home, Sweden asked to question Astiz. Soon after the French government asked that Astiz be held while they sort legal remedies for the "disappearances" of the nuns. Both countries stated that they had eyewitnesses for the "disappearances." The UK initially responded that concerned parties should talk to the ICRC as they would be handing Astiz to them. However, the ICRC steadfastly refused the countries' requests to talk to Astiz should he be handed into their custody. Both nations stepped up diplomatic pressure on the United Kingdom not to hand him over to the ICRC. The UK decided to send home the 189 other detainees, "as an act of compassion," while Astiz was to be held until "the end of the belligerency", initially on Ascension.
Two weeks later, under pressure from public opinion at home and the French and Swedish governments, the UK decided to buy time by putting Astiz on a boat from Ascension to the UK. While Astiz was in transit the UK announced he would be made available for interview by representatives of the French and Swedish governments. Soon after the Argentine government made veiled threats against the welfare of three UK journalists they had arrested as spies and linked their release to that of Astiz. The questioning went ahead in June but was performed by a Detective Chief Superintendent of the Sussex Constabulary. Both times he was questioned Astiz kept silent. A detailed report was prepared and given to the Swedish and French governments, but was probably not informative, as Astiz said nothing during the questioning. Astiz was repatriated to Argentina on 10 June 1982, just before the start of the battle for Port Stanley and the Argentine capitulation on 14 June.
The UK government had chosen to read the Third Geneva Convention as protecting Astiz from criminal prosecution in the UK or extradition. Meyer argues that this was an incorrect reading but was justified at the time by four points. Astiz was in protective custody because of special circumstances i.e. surrendering during war. The Geneva Conventions exhort custodial powers to leniency. Astiz was accused of crimeskidnapping, wounding and torturewhich were illegal in Argentina and he could, in theory, be prosecuted there. In the end Meyer argues that nothing in the Geneva Conventions themselves expressly prohibited the prosecution or extradition of Astiz. However, the extradition treaties between the UK and both Sweden and France referred only to crimes committed within the territory of the requesting state and crimes against international law. But Astiz was accused of crimes against the citizens of these states in Argentina, which were not, at the time, crimes under international law.
On the other hand, criminal prosecution within the UK was ruled out during his detention because Astiz committed no crimes against British subjects, their possessions or the British State.
Meyer argues that victims of Astiz, or their representatives, might have been successful in securing damages from him if they had brought a civil action while he was in the UK. As with criminal prosecution there is nothing in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 removing the civil liability of prisoners of war for actions committed prior to capture. A British court has jurisdiction over a foreign tort whenever the defendant is in the UK if the alleged act would have been actionable as a tort if committed in Britain and it was an offence under the laws of the foreign country. Torture and kidnap by government officials is actionable as a tort if committed in England. Proving that it was an offence under the laws of Argentina is more difficult. English courts assume that the authorised actions of officials of a foreign government within its sovereign territory are not actionable within their jurisdiction unless those actions are outside the scope of the powers of the government. Since torture is expressly forbidden in the Argentine constitution there is a good argument that Astiz was acting outside his powers as an agent of the Argentine government in torturing Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet. Although there were witnesses prepared to testify that they had seen Astiz torture Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet this approach did not seem to have been thought of in time and no such case was brought.
On 16 March 1990 Alfredo Astiz was convicted and sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by a French Assize Court for his role in the torture and disappearance of the two French nuns, Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet. French law allows trials, in absentia if necessary, of foreigners accused of breaking French laws in other jurisdictions if the crimes are committed against French nationals.
Astiz has been arrested several times in Argentina since his repatriation after the Falklands War but no prosecution against him has been successful. In 2003 the Argentine Supreme Court declared the amnesty laws introduced during the transition to democracy (Ley de Obediencia Debida and Ley de Punto Final) unconstitutional. Legal action has since been taken against Astiz, and France is still waiting for his extradition.
He has several times been physically attacked by civilians; a famous assault took place in Bariloche in the mid-1990s.
Along with Luis Maria Mendia, former chief of naval operations in 197677, Astiz testified in January 2007 before Argentine judges that a French intelligence agent, Bertrand de Perseval, had participated in the abduction of the two French nuns. Perseval, who lives today in Thailand, denied any links with the abduction, but did admit being a former member of the Organisation de l'armee secrete (OAS), an underground group which fought to subvert the French government of Charles de Gaulle, and having escaped to Argentina after the March 1962 Evian Accords which put an end to the 195462 Algerian War. It has long been suspected that French intelligence agents trained their Argentine counterparts in counter-insurgency techniques involving massive use of torture as in Algeria.
Referring to Marie Monique Robin's film documentary titled The Death Squads - the French School (''Les escadrons de la mort - l'ecole francaise''), which claimed that the French intelligence services had trained Argentine counterparts in counter-insurgency techniques, Mendia asked the Argentine Court to summons the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French premier Pierre Messmer, the former French ambassador to Buenos Aires Francoise de la Gosse, and all those in office in the French embassy in Buenos Aires between 1976 and 1983. Disparitions: un ancien agent francais mis en cause, Le Figaro, February 6, 2007 Besides this "French connection" Mendia has also blamed the former head of state Isabel Peron and the former ministers Carlos Ruckauf and Antonio Cafiero, who had signed anti-subversion decrees before Videla's 1976 coup d'etat. According to the ESMA survivor Graciela Daleo this is another tactic to absolve the actual perpetrators of culpability, like the 1987 Obediencia Debida Act, by trying to shift it to the predecessors of the military government, and the French. Daleo points out that claiming to be obeying Peron's anti-subversion decrees is grotesque, as those who murdered in the name of the decrees were the ones who had deposed her. Imparti ordenes que fueron cumplidas, Pagina/12, February 2, 2007
Astiz's pocket book and badges of rank taken by a member of the British Special Boat Service after his surrender in South Georgia are currently exhibited in the Imperial War Museum, London.
Uki Goni. 1996. "El Infiltrado: La Verdadera Historia de Alfredo Astiz." Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana. ISBN 950-07-1197-4.
Horacio Verbitsky. 1996. "The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior." New York: New Press. ISBN 1-56584-009-7.
Meyer, "Liability of Prisoners of War for Offences committed prior to Capture: the Astiz Affair", International Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 1983, pp. 949980.
Argentina's "Angel of Death" Is Arrested The Guardian, by Uki Goni
Las Visitas Desaparecidas Pagina/12, by Uki Goni (Spanish)
Facing trial in Argentina to escape French justice
Site on French victims of Alfredo Astiz (video in french)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Alfredo Astiz