An Argentine court, on Friday, sentenced 15 ex-military officials to prison, for human rights crimes that took place in the Operation Condor conspiracy. The sentences range from 8 to 25 years.
Operation Condor was coordinated by dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia to hunt down and kill exiled opponents in the 1970s and '80s. The highest ranking figure on trial, former Argentine dictator Reynaldo Bignone, 88, was sentenced to 20 years in jail. Fourteen of the remaining 16 defendants were given jail terms of 8 to 25 years. Two were found not guilty.
Some individual crimes committed under Operation Condor had already been the subject of previous trials. Friday's verdict was the first to focus on participation in the plan itself.
"This ruling, about the coordination of military dictatorships in the Americas to commit atrocities, sets a powerful precedent to ensure that these grave human rights violations do not ever take place again in the region," Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, told AP in a phone interview.
The court verdict cited the disappearance of 105 people during the dictatorship regime in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
"It determines not only that state terrorism in Argentina was a criminal conspiracy but that it was coordinated with other dictatorships," said Luz Palmas Zaldua, a lawyer with the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (Cels), which represented many of the plaintiffs in the case.
"They got together to maximise efforts to persecute political opponents of each of the dictatorships, and to 'disappear' or eliminate those who were considered subversive," she told reporters after the ruling was read out in court.
Operation Condor, named after the broad-winged birds that inhabit the cordillera mountain range on the Chile-Argentine border, was coordinated from a joint information centre at the headquarters of Chile's notorious secret police in Santiago.
In a state visit to Argentina in March, US President Barack Obama said that his country was too slow to condemn atrocities committed by the dictatorship, but he stopped short of apologising for Washington's early support for the military junta. The ruling was hailed by rights activists.
What was Operation Condor?
Military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil decided to jointly hunt down and eliminate opponents and leftists across the continent and beyond. It operated from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s.
How did it work?
Operation Condor began in 1975, when South America's dictatorships agreed to exchange information on political dissidents, trade unionists, students and anyone suspected of being a leftist, especially those who had sought refuge in other countries. According to declassified documents, various US government agencies were aware of the plan.
The covert programme involved the deployment of special transnational teams to kidnap subversive "targets," who were then interrogated and tortured in seven clandestine prisons located on military or police bases in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile. The dissidents were sometimes returned to their country of origin and disappeared.
Condor's agents also assassinated political leaders seen as threats, including those who influenced public opinion against the military regimes. Some of their targets were in the United States and Europe. The September 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier, the foreign minister under Chile's socialist President Salvador Allende, was the best-known case. Letelier, and his US aide Ronni Moffitt, were killed by a bomb placed in his car in Washington DC. Investigators found that the Chilean dictatorship’s spy agency, known as DINA, and an anti-Castro group, many of whose members had been trained by the CIA, were behind the assassination.
The minds behind Operation Condor
Operation Condor was the brainchild of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Paraguayan strongman Alfredo Stroessner, Bolivia's Hugo Banzer, Argentine dictator Jorge Videla and Juan Maria Bordaberry of Uruguay. No representative of Brazil signed the operation's charter. However, the government cooperated with the programme and dissidents were killed and kidnapped in Brazilian territory.