NEW YORK — The recent sentencing in Spain of an Argentine former navy commander, Adolfo Scilingo, to 640 years in prison for crimes against humanity will have groundbreaking consequences for the trial of those guilty of similar crimes worldwide. As a result of this trial, crimes committed in Chile, Guatemala and Rwanda are already making their way to Spanish courts.

Scilingo’s revelations of murder and torture committed by the Argentine military, as revealed by journalist Horacio Verbitsky at the beginning of 1995, sent chills down the backs of human rights activists worldwide. It is believed that around 30,000 Argentines “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983, victims of repression unleashed by the military.

Scilingo’s recent trial in Spain — the first of its kind under Spanish legislation allowing that nation’s courts to rule on nondomestic cases of crimes against humanity — is a significant affirmation of the principle of universal jurisdiction over those heinous crimes. The Spanish court sentence confirms that national borders do not prevent the prosecution of those guilty of crimes against humanity.

This is the same principle under which the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights in New York filed a complaint with the Federal German Prosecutor’s office against U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and nine other defendants. They are accused of war crimes and torture in connection with abuses of detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

According to Wolfgang Kaleck, a German lawyer representing the Coalition against Impunity, this action is being taken because “it is clear that the U.S. system of justice is not interested in investigating high ranking civilians or military officers.”

At his Spanish trial, Scilingo told jurors how hundreds of political prisoners, mockingly called “comida para los pescados” (“fish food”) by their captors, were thrown alive but unconscious out of planes into the sea during Argentina’s reign of terror.

Scilingo’s testimony to Verbitsky was later corroborated by other officers, among them Victor Armando Ibanez, a sergeant in the Argentine Army during what the military rulers called the “dirty war.” Although Scilingo now denies his personal involvement in those horrific actions, that doesn’t diminish the seriousness of those crimes.

Scilingo’s revelations brought to light the complicity of military physicians, whose role was to administer a sedative to prisoners to make them unconscious before they were thrown out naked from the planes into the ocean. After fulfilling their tasks, the physicians returned to the pilot’s cabin to avoid seeing what happened to the prisoners.

The events in Argentina mirror actions taken by the Chilean military against the opposition, as described by Andres Antonio Valenzuela Morales, who was the first defector from Pinochet’s secret services. According to Valenzuela Morales, between 10 and 15 people at a time were taken into military helicopters and thrown into the Pacific Ocean, their stomachs slit open so that the corpses wouldn’t float.

Scilingo and Ibanez’s statements were followed by an unprecedented “mea culpa” by the heads of the Argentine Army, Navy and Air Force, accepting responsibility for their actions against their opponents while they were in power. Last November, Chilean Army Commander in Chief Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, assumed “institutional responsibility” for the human rights abuses during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

In Argentina, the Catholic Church also underwent a process of revision because of the participation of navy chaplains in the process. Scilingo indicated that navy chaplains, while consulted on how “to dispose” of prisoners, 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 Catholic Church can become willing participants in torture, it means that torture not only debases those who conduct it but also corrupts the society in which those crimes are perpetrated.

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