French role in the export of torture practices

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Developing countries are routinely blamed for using brutal techniques on prisoners. The same condemnation should be extended to industrialized countries that not only used these techniques themselves but also exported them to other countries.

France is a case in point. There is ample evidence of the widespread use of torture and assassination of political opponents during that country’s occupation of Algeria. Less well-known is the fact that French military officers trained the Argentine military in the psychological and physical torture of political prisoners in Argentina.

A French judge, Roger Le Loire, when investigating the disappearance of French citizens in Argentina during the last military regime, interrogated Gen. Paul Aussaresses about his knowledge of torture techniques provided by his soldiers to the Argentine military. Aussaresses’ testimony helped draw a picture of the French military’s role in teaching torture to their Argentine colleagues. Aussaresses defended his use of torture during the Algerian War in the book “The Battle of the Casbah,” and argued for torture in the fight against al-Qaida.

Although historians debate whether the repression in Algeria was government- backed or not, Aussaresses stated that the French government insisted that the military in Algeria “liquidate the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) as quickly as possible.” Following the controversy fueled by his statements, he was stripped of his rank, the right to wear his uniform and his legion d’honneur.

Aussaresses had close links with the Brazilian military. According to Gen. Manuel Contreras, former head of the Chilean DINA (Direccion Nacional de Inteligencia), Chilean officers were trained in Brazil by Aussaresses. He also advised South American militaries on battles against counterinsurgency and on the use of torture.

Lt. Col. Roger Trinquier was reportedly the architect of brutal repression in Algeria and the development of the concept of “modern war.” One of that concept’s basic tenets was the “secrecy doctrine,” which was to cause havoc in Argentina during the last military regime that ruled that country.

An important premise of that doctrine was the need to maintain strict secrecy with regard to the detention of political prisoners, as well as their death, and to ensure the elimination of all corpses. Many were dumped in the ocean; some later washed ashore on Argentine and Uruguayan beaches.

The use of military personnel dressed as civilians, looking for political opponents to interrogate and torture, was a technique implemented by the French in Indochina and Algeria, and later exported to Argentina through French military advisers. In Argentina, these techniques led to the “disappearance” of some 30,000 political prisoners in the 1970s, almost all of whom are still unaccounted for.

The justification, according to French officials for this “assistance” is that it had been requested by the Argentine government. As Pierre Messmer, a former prime minister, stated, “Argentina wanted the advisers so we gave them what they wanted. Argentina is an independent country and there was no reason for us to deny their request.”

This indicates that training in repression wasn’t the isolated decision of a few but a definite state policy.

If there is a moral to this sad story, it is that no country, no matter how technically advanced, is free of the dangers inherent in the use of brutal repressive techniques and their export. And it is the duty of informed citizens to denounce these vicious policies.

Cesar Chelala is cowinner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the best article on human rights, for coauthoring “Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims,” a cover story in The New York Times Magazine.