BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Three Argentine pilots were charged on Thursday over dictatorship-era “death flights,” when drugged political prisoners were thrown from military planes into the River Plate, court sources said.
The indictment was ordered as part of an investigation into crimes committed at the infamous ESMA Naval Mechanics School during the 1976-1983 “Dirty War,” during which as many as 30,000 people were kidnapped and killed.
“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 handcuffs, and then gave them the final injection. They threw them out sleeping and alive,” prosecution lawyer Horacio Mendez Carreras told Reuters Television.
About 5,000 suspected leftist dissidents were held at the clandestine detention center. Many died during the secret death flights and few bodies were recovered.
One of the bodies identified was that of Leonie Duquet, a French nun who disappeared in 1977 after being detained at the ESMA with her colleague, Alice Domon.
Prosecutors think the three former coast guard pilots may have flown the plane from which the nuns were thrown because Duquet’s body was found washed up on a beach several days after the flight was registered in routine records.
The death flights took place on Wednesdays and Duquet was last seen alive in a photograph taken alongside Domon at the ESMA on the Tuesday before her body was found.
“Every Wednesday, the guards would come ... and would start yelling out numbers. I was 896. If they called out your number, you were taken,” former ESMA detainee Ricardo Coquet said.
“Then they were told they were being given a tranquilizer so they didn’t make any trouble in the transfer, because they were going to travel far,” he said.
Federal Judge Sergio Torres ordered the three pilots to be taken into custody, the judiciary’s official news agency reported. A former navy official and a lawyer were also charged.
Courts convicted former members of the military junta of human rights crimes after the return of democracy in 1983, but they were later released under an amnesty.
In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the amnesty at the urging of former President Nestor Kirchner, the late husband of current President Cristina Fernandez.
Courts have since convicted and sentenced a handful of former military and police officers on human rights charges, and several other high-profile trials are under way.
Among those facing trial over rights crimes committed at the ESMA center is Alfredo Astiz, a former navy captain known as “the blond angel of death” and convicted in absentia in France for the killing of the nuns.
Additional reporting by Juan Bustamante and Kylie Stott; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Eric Walsh