Former Argentine soldiers see justice in declassified files
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Former Argentine soldier Silvio Katz says he doesn't recall how long his hands and feet were tied while he was stuck in the mud, partially naked in freezing temperatures as members of his battalion were forced to urinate on him.
But he does vividly remember the feeling of humiliation 33 years after he and thousands of other ill-prepared Argentine soldiers were sent to the far-flung Falkland Islands on an ill-conceived mission to take the archipelago from Great Britain.
"In the middle of a war, one would say we have to be bound together against a common enemy," said Katz, 52, who at the time was 19. "The common enemy here was in fact our own platoon leader."
Last week's release of secret files from the short Falklands war in 1982 has given Katz and nearly 200 others hope of getting resolution. For years, they have been demanding compensation from the government, periodically protesting in the iconic 21 de Mayo plaza in downtown Buenos Aires. President after president has given them the cold shoulder while lawsuits have gotten tied up in the courts.
Then in April, President Cristina Fernandez ordered military leaders declassify files from the war, opening the door to frank discussions on some of the more unsavory details about what is widely seen as the South American nation's worst military endeavor.
The declassified files, reviewed by The Associated Press, include "completion certificates" filled out by soldiers after the war. The accounts include claims that military superiors tortured them by leaving them in burial pits, withholding food and giving them electric shocks.
The files also include a certificate signed by Cristino Nicolaides, then commander of the Army, who ordered internal disciplinary action in misconduct cases, but also said they should not be made public.
Katz said being Jewish made him a particular target, recalling that a battalion commander referred to him as "Christ killer." One night, he said, he and a fellow soldier briefly abandoned their positions to look for food. When their superiors found out, the men were forced to "eat the food mixed with our own excrement," said Katz, who recounted the story with tears in his eyes.
Later, with just his underwear on, he said he was tied up, pushed into the mud and urinated on.
Why battlefield leaders allegedly abused their own men is a debated question. At the time, Argentina was in the midst of a brutal military dictatorship that killed or disappeared more than 30,000 people between 1976 and 1983. "The Generals," as they were known, ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands, which Great Britain has controlled since the 19th century, when the Argentine economy was tanking and discontent with the government was mounting.
Sent with little training and shoddy equipment, the soldiers were quickly defeated by the British. The conflict lasted three months, leaving 649 Argentine and 255 British soldiers dead.
In all, more than 180 former soldiers have claimed abuse during the war.
"These documents mark a before and an after," said Ernesto Alonso who leads a veterans support group of dozens of former soldiers. "The shroud has been lifted."
It's unclear whether the declassification could lead to criminal proceedings against any battlefield leaders still alive or compensation from the government.
A 2007 criminal suit filed by Katz and several other former soldiers was thrown out by a superior court on the grounds that there wasn't a connection between the alleged abuses and a government policy of systematic repression. In February, the Supreme Court validated criminal proceedings in one case of alleged abuse. The justices wrote that they could not determine the merit of the other cases.
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