A trial taking place in Spain against one of Argentina's most notorious torturers calls attention to that country's nightmare under military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Former Navy commander Adolfo Francisco Scilingo's revelations to the Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky at the beginning of 1995 sent chills through the human-rights community worldwide. Scilingo's trial is significant proof of international jurisdiction on crimes against humanity. Scilingo's statements also show how pervasive torture can be in affecting important sectors of civilian society.
In his conversations with Verbitsky, Scilingo had acknowledged the brutal role of the military in crushing the opposition, and he also spoke of complicity in those crimes of physicians and members of Argentina's Catholic Church. Scilingo told the jurors how thousands of political prisoners were thrown unconscious but alive out of planes into the sea during the military's reign of terror in Argentina. Those prisoners who were pushed into the ocean were mockingly called ''comida para los pescados'' (fish food) by their captors.
Scilingo's testimony was corroborated later by other officers, among them Víctor Armando Ibáñez, who was a sergeant in the Argentine army during Argentina's ''dirty war'' against the opposition. Estimates of human-rights groups indicate that around 30,000 Argentines ''disappeared'' between 1976 and 1983, victims of the repression unleashed by the military. Ibáñez also stated that many adolescents were killed in the manner described by Scilingo.
Scilingo's testimony brought to light the complicity of military physicians, whose role was to administer a sedative to the prisoners to make them unconscious before they were thrown out naked from the planes into the ocean. During that process, after fulfilling their task, the physicians went back to the pilot's cabin to avoid seeing what happened to the prisoners ``because of their concern about the Hippocratic Oath they had sworn to uphold.''
Those events in Argentina mirror actions taken by the Chilean military against the opposition, as described by Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales, who was the first defector from the Chilean secret services under the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. According to Valenzuela, between 10 and 15 people at a time were taken into military helicopters and thrown into the Pacific Ocean, after their stomachs were slit open so that they wouldn't float.
Scilingo and Ibáñez's statements were followed by an unprecedented mea culpa by the heads of the Argentine Army, the Navy and the Air Force, accepting responsibility for their actions against their opponents while they were in power.
The Catholic Church also underwent a process of soul-searching because of the participation of navy chaplains. Scilingo indicated that navy chaplains were consulted on how ''to dispose'' of prisoners, and comforted the officers involved in those gruesome murders. He was so disturbed after his first ''death flight'' that he consulted with a navy chaplain. ''He told me that it was a Christian death because they did not suffer, that it was necessary to eliminate them,'' Scilingo declared later.
Following Scilingo's revelations Jorge Novak, a bishop of Quilmes, an industrial area in Buenos Aires province, declared that, ``We in the Catholic Church should admit our lack of sensitivity, our cowardice, our omissions and our complicity.''
Scilingo's trial further highlights how torture can affect all sectors of a society. If physicians and members of the church can become willing participants in torture, it means that torture not only debases those that conduct it, it also sickens society where those crimes are perpetrated.
César Chelala, MD, is co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for 'Missing or Dead in Argentina', published as a cover story in The New York Times Magazine.
© 2005 Miami Herald