Argentina's 'Angel of Death' jailed for crimes against humanity

Alfredo Astiz, who murdered activists during 'dirty war' and came to symbolise junta's crimes, sentenced to life in prison

To his victims, he was the Blond Angel of Death who took them from their homes or kidnapped them off the street and delivered them to a notorious camp to be tortured and murdered for being dissidents.

To his fellow navy officers he was the Hero of Malvinas, the intrepid commander who landed on the South Georgia islands in 1982 in the first move that led to the Falklands war.

On Wednesday Alfredo Astiz became "guilty as charged" as he and 11 other former officers were sentenced to life imprisonment in one of Argentina's biggest human rights trials over the crimes committed at the ESMA naval unit, where about 5,000 dissidents were held and tortured.

"This act of justice at last allows the relatives of the victims to fully mourn their dead," said Horacio Mendez, the lawyer whose original attempt to have Astiz sentenced was thwarted in 1987 by amnesty laws passed as a concession to the military who were threatening to overturn democracy once again.

The two-year trial was the latest in a succession of cases into the "disappearance" of around 30,000 mostly young political opponents of the military regime. The courts have been handing out sentences at a glacial pace so far.

Among other crimes, Astiz and the other defendants were sentenced for the kidnapping and murder of two French nuns, Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, and a group of mothers 34 years ago during Argentina's last military dictatorship.

The French missionaries aided the mothers of Argentina's desaparecidos by accompanying them to police stations and military barracks looking for news of their children, before being kidnapped themselves by Astiz.

"I am extremely moved by this sentence because after so many years justice has finally been done," said Genevieve Jeanningros, a niece of Duquet, who flew in from France for the sentencing.

Astiz remained defiant till the end, laughing in the face of the judge, Daniel Obligado, and pinning a ribbon with the blue and white colours of the Argentine flag to his coat lapel as Obligado read the sentence against him.

In his closing words to the court a few days earlier, Astiz, who was condemned in absentia in 1990 by a Paris court for the murder of the two nuns, accused the court and the plaintiffs in Buenos Aires of being "accomplices of foreign colonialism" by condemning him for the murder.

Astiz was also condemned for the murder of three of the founding members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared who started a defiant march every Thursday in front of the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires.

"It is a historic day," said Ana María Careaga, the daughter of Esther Careaga, one of the mothers that Astiz befriended and then kidnapped. "But the loss remains irreparable, nobody can give us back the family moments we never enjoyed again."

For Robert Cox, the British former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, the only newspaper in Argentina that reported on the disappearances when they happened, Wednesday's ruling had been long overdue. "I was always convinced that this day would come, there was no way it could be covered up," said Cox.

But for some, the bitter overruled the sweet. "I don't believe in justice 34 years after the fact, now that the accused are too old and decrepit for it to matter," said Cecilia Devincenti, the daughter of the founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Azucena Villaflor.

"My father died of sadness three years after my mother was taken, I think it is more a parody than real justice now."

Uki Goni in Buenos Aires

The GuardianTramp

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