Two and a half decades after the Malvinas/Falkland Islands war, former Argentine soldiers have filed a collective lawsuit against officers for murder and torture of their own troops.
“We have testimony from 23 people about a soldier who was shot to death by a corporal, four other former combatants who starved to death, and at least 15 cases of conscripts (doing their compulsory military service) who were staked out on the ground,” Pablo Vassel, under-secretary of human rights in the northeastern province of Corrientes, told IPS.
The issue has just begun to make it to the courts 25 years after the end of the war. Veterans were afraid of breaking orders to keep a “military secret,” and Vassel said murders went unpunished because the deaths were reported to the families as combat casualties.
The lawsuit, which is based on testimony from soldiers from Corrientes, was brought before a federal court in Tierra del Fuego, the country’s southernmost province, which according to Argentine law includes in its jurisdiction the Malvinas/Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory located 600 km east of the mainland in the Atlantic Ocean.
Argentina has claimed sovereignty over the islands since they were occupied by the British in 1833.
In 1982, the Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983) invaded the islands. But the attempt to seize them by force ended in defeat 74 days later. A total of 635 Argentine and 255 British soldiers were killed in the war.
Of the total number of Argentine casualties, 323 died when the General Belgrano navy cruiser was sunk by a British nuclear-powered submarine.
In addition, veterans’ associations report that some 350 former combatants have committed suicide since the war. The latest veteran to take his own life was Miguel Boyero, who hung himself on Apr. 10.
Since the end of the war, isolated reports have come out about abuse of soldiers at the hands of their superiors, in books and films in which veterans have told their stories. But until now, no authority had taken up the case. “The state had just ignored the whole thing,” admitted Vassel.
Individual cases brought in other cities could now also be referred to the same courtroom. Two of them are in the courts in the eastern resort city of Mar del Plata, where a veteran, Rubén Gleriano, denounced last year that he was staked out on the ground during the war as a punishment for stealing food, and nearly died of hypothermia.
Gleriano said that after he had gone two and a half days without eating, he decided to walk two kilometres to a food warehouse, to try to get past the officers standing guard. On his return, he was punished.
Another veteran from the same city, Walter Salas, also brought legal action for being staked out on the ground and kicked by his superior officers.
Other cases of abuse were revealed by former soldiers from La Plata, the capital of the eastern province of Buenos Aires. Veterans from that city are getting ready to add their cases to the lawsuit filed by the former combatants in Corrientes.
“The war is a touchy issue in the province of Corrientes, which sent the greatest number of soldiers to Malvinas in proportion to its population, was the first to declare Apr. 2 (the day the Argentine troops invaded the islands) a holiday, and was the first to grant pensions to the veterans,” said Vasssel.
Vassel, along with the Centre of Former Combatants from Corrientes, launched an investigation two years ago. Of the 800 soldiers from Corrientes who took part in the conflict, 230 still live in the province. “The rest have died or moved away,” said the official.
>From around 100 former troops who still live in Corrientes, the government collected a total of 10 hours of videotaped testimony. A 200-page report was also produced, containing accounts of different kinds of torture and even cases of murder, and identifying both the victims and the aggressors.
One of the cases of abuse is that of Juan de la Cruz Martins, who weighed 62 kgs when he went to the Malvinas/Falklands and came back weighing just 29 kgs.
In the report, Martins says he was mistreated by a Lieutenant Baroni, and reports the death of one of his fellow soldiers.
Another person to speak out was Oscar Núñez, who told of a blow to his ribs from an officer with the last name Malacalza. He said that the blow and an eight-hour stake-out was the punishment he suffered for stealing a sheep to eat after watching conscript Secundino Riquelme starve to death.
Germán Navarro testified having seen a Corporal Cabrera kill one of his subordinates with a burst of machine-gun fire, after an argument with him.
“It’s a complicated issue because in war, international humanitarian law protects combatants against abuse by the enemy, but there aren’t any laws against systematic abuse of soldiers by officers of their own side,” Vassel said.
The documents were presented to the Ministry of Defence on the eve of Apr. 2, the 25th anniversary of the start of the war, along with a request for the Néstor Kirchner administration to set up a commission to gather testimony all over the country and compile it in a single case against the military for human rights abuses on the islands.
But while waiting for a response, the plaintiffs took their case to the courts.
“We are the last collective victims of the dictatorship,” Orlando Pascua of the Centre of Former Combatants from Corrientes told IPS. He, too, went to Tierra del Fuego to file the lawsuit. The veteran told how he had seen a navy officer order the stake-out of a conscript for an alleged lapse of discipline.
This punishment consisted of tying down the “prisoner” stretched out on the ground with stakes. Sometimes the victim would be naked, and at other times covered with a blanket. He would be left there for eight hours or more in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter, at the mercy of the islands’ low temperatures, strong winds, snow, and enemy fire.
“One soldier was staked out on the mainland, before the troops embarked for the Malvinas, for arriving late at the line-up, which shows that it must have been a very clear operational instruction,” Vassel said. “That’s why we say that the dictatorship treated soldiers in the Malvinas the same as civilians on the mainland.”
According to human rights organisations, the abuses visited on civilians during the military regime included 30,000 forced disappearances of political prisoners who had been held in 500 clandestine torture centres around the country.
Pascua pointed out that among the officers who abused their own troops, some are also accused of crimes against humanity involving civilians. They include Captain Julio Binotti, former Colonel Horacio Losito, former navy captains Alfredo Astiz and Antonio Pernías, and former General Mario Benjamín Menéndez.
The statements all agree that the vast majority of the soldiers were hungry and cold. “Conscripts who were doing their military service in the southernmost provinces, with the coldest climates, had adequate clothing, but those who came from the north of the country, where it is much hotter, went to war with the same clothes they used all year round at home,” Pascua said.
Likewise, food was short or unavailable for the troops in the trenches. In fact, most of the disciplinary punishments were meted out to conscripts for stealing food or sheep in order to survive. In the worst cases, soldiers actually starved to death.
“What is most abhorrent and appalling is that this was like a planned extermination, because the Rattenbach Report (produced by a military commission presided over by an officer of that name, which investigated the conduct of the armed forces during the war) showed that the invasion was planned over a period of a year and a half,” Pascua said.
“This proves that there was no improvisation involved. That’s why we are calling them crimes against humanity,” the former combatant said. IPS – Inter-Press Service