- Associated Press - Monday, July 5, 2010

BUENOS AIRES | Nelida Sosa de Forti almost escaped Argentina’s dictatorship. The airplane’s engines were already running when an air force commander came on board and ordered her and her five sons off the plane. Armed men waiting on the tarmac took them away.

After days in a clandestine prison cell where she did her best to keep them calm, the children were pulled from their mother and dumped on a curb in downtown Buenos Aires, bound, blindfolded and covered by a sheet. They never saw her again.

Her final gift, the oldest son says, was to persuade their jailers to set them free.

For more than 33 years, her family had few clues to her fate — until the list appeared.

In a revelation that is reverberating across Argentina, a survivor of the detention center where Mrs. Sosa was held has presented a list of 293 detainees, part of a trove of evidence he rescued from destruction decades ago and hid away.

There, in neat columns typed by a police functionary, each “subversive delinquent” is listed alongside a terse decision on his or her fate. In the last column beside Mrs. Sosa’s name are the letters “DF,” military shorthand for “disposition final” — death.

“Obviously, it was very painful for me to see the letters ‘DF,’” her eldest son, Alfredo Forti, told the Associated Press.

The 259 pages of documents are evidence in a provincial trial of four men charged with the disappearances and torture of 22 people in the early years of the 1976-1983 dictatorship. The trial in Tucuman is now in its last stages, with the verdict expected Thursday.

The documents — copies of which were obtained by the AP — include handwritten notes made during torture sessions, reports about spying efforts, the names of intelligence agents and the identities of bodies. Many bear the stamps and signatures of police and military agencies and officials.

Official investigations until now have been based largely on missing-person complaints and a patchwork of survivors’ memories. They determined the military junta killed about 13,000 people, though human rights groups think as many as 30,000 died during what Argentines call the “dirty war.”

The new evidence is something else entirely: documents created by the very people said to be responsible for kidnappings, tortures and summary executions just as they were happening.

It is something that was never supposed to see the light of day: Junta leaders ordered the destruction of meticulous records kept on people they considered to be dangerous political subversives.

The documents reflect a systematic plan of repression and summary execution that had begun in Tucuman even before the military coup, and they should help resolve some of the junta’s earliest disappearances, including those never included among the official 13,000 dead.

When the list surfaced last month, families of the disappeared rushed to the court to see if their missing relatives were named.

Mr. Forti also had to see it for himself. Now the secretary of international affairs for the Defense Ministry, he has made his life’s work to seek justice for his mother’s killers and to reform Argentina’s military, making sure it remains firmly under civilian control.

The documents demonstrate the “tremendous precision” with which the military dictatorship pursued its perceived political enemies, Mr. Forti said.

“This is evidence of something much larger, that was completely systematized in the famous archives of the repression,” he said.

Mrs. Sosa’s work as a community activist made her a target of the junta. When people in her social circle began to disappear, her surgeon husband found work in Venezuela and sent for the family. Mrs. Sosa and her sons, from 16 to 8 years old, were traveling to meet him when they were pulled from the plane in Buenos Aires. Their father eventually raised the boys in Venezuela.

Until the list surfaced, the only clue to Mrs. Sosa’s fate came from a former prisoner who said he had seen her at the Tucuman detention center in 1977.

The man who eventually turned over the list survived detention in the same place: Juan Carlos Clemente, who now is in Argentina’s witness-protection program.

Mr. Clemente was a leftist activist when he was kidnapped with his wife in 1976. She was killed, and Mr. Clemente was tortured. He testified that his willpower was “reduced to ashes” by the thought that he would never come out alive.

Mr. Clemente acknowledged in court that he gained better treatment by going “sightseeing.” That meant he was taken out in the streets to identify other leftists to police, human rights groups say.

Eventually, he was given police credentials and a job filing documents, and was allowed to sleep in his own home. Then an order came to close down the detention center and incinerate the evidence. Over the course of a week in 1977, Mr. Clemente says, he stole hundreds of papers instead, smuggling them out inside his pants legs.

For 34 years, Mr. Clemente kept them hidden, wrapped in plastic bags and stashed beneath his floor. He testified his former captors regularly threatened him not to incriminate them, and said he kept the documents secret out of fear for his life.

Some human rights groups consider Mr. Clemente to be a traitor who saved himself by dooming other leftists. Because Mr. Clemente was a witness and not a defendant in the trial, prosecutors did not grill him about his collaboration with police and military officials. Mr. Clemente’s protected-witness status does not prevent him from being tried in the future.

Mr. Forti, for one, refuses to condemn a torture survivor: “No one can appoint himself judge of a person’s actions under such severe, inhumane treatment,” he said.

The defendants include Luciano Menendez, who directed the armed forces’ actions against leftist guerrillas in 10 Argentine provinces; Roberto Albornoz, who ran police intelligence in Tucuman; and two brothers who are former police officers, Carlos Esteban de Candido and Luis Armando de Candido.

Mr. Menendez testified his actions as a military leader were justified because Argentina had to prevent communists from taking over the country. Mr. Albornoz and the other defendants said they were following military orders.

While Mr. Albornoz acknowledged that his signature appears on many of the documents, he denied that any prisoner was killed in his detention center, testifying he understood they were killed later in military facilities.

Another prominent defendant was Antonio Domingo Bussi, Tucuman’s de-facto governor at the time. Already sentenced to lifelong house arrest on other convictions, he has been provisionally separated from the trial owing to poor health.

About 20 dictatorship-era human rights cases are being tried this year in Argentina, and verdicts have been reached in 23 others since amnesty laws were overturned in 2005.

Bernardo Lobo, a lawyer for the victims’ families, hopes Mr. Clemente’s files may prompt others with information to step forward, leading to new arrests and trials.

“This has ruptured the hiding and the silence,” Mr. Lobo said.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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