The British fondness for fair play had one of its finest hours five weeks ago. After recapturing South Georgia Island, in the first step toward regaining the Falklands, British naval officers invited the defeated Argentine commander to dine aboard their warship. The prisoner, a charming, cultivated officer who spoke perfect English, identified himself as Captain Alfredo Astiz, 32. Sharing their wardroom aboard the warship while it steamed north to Ascension Island to drop off the captives, Astiz seemed to share the genteel values of his hosts. But when stories and photographs appeared in European newspapers of the stubble-bearded captain signing surrender documents, he was recognized as a man with an evil past. According to onetime political prisoners who have fled Argentina, the well-mannered captain was once the leader of an Argentine security squad which specialized in kidnapping, torture and murder. Says exiled Argentine dissident Jacobo Timerman bitterly: “Astiz was one of the worst.”
The British sense of fair play is being sorely tested now. The other 189 Argentines captured on South Georgia have already been released and repatriated. But Astiz remained in custody on Ascension Island awaiting transfer to Britain. The governments of Sweden and France have asked for permission to question him about his involvement in the 1977 disappearances in Buenos Aires of two French nuns and a 17-year-old girl holding dual Swedish-Argentine nationality. “We’ve had no reply so far to our request,” a Swedish official reports. “But I guess at the moment the British have other priorities.” A British foreign office spokesman reports, “We are addressing ourselves to that at the moment.” But sources in London suggest that internationally accepted rules on treatment of war prisoners will prevent investigation of Astiz about his secret-police actions.
The identification of Astiz appears solid. “It’s him,” says ex-prisoner Sara Solarz de Osatinsky, naming Astiz as the man who masterminded her abduction from a Buenos Aires street in 1977. At the time she was an accountant involved in the antigovernment Peronist movement. “Other officers tortured me, but he tortured a friend of mine.” Now living in Europe, Solarz was among thousands kidnapped following the military takeover in 1976. She recalls that the blond-haired Astiz was known variously as “White Angel,” “Crow” and “Captain Death,” names confirmed by other victims tortured by Astiz operatives at Argentina’s Navy Engineering School. Solarz says that Astiz had an unusual trait: He liked to chat with his victims, apparently confident they would never live to testify against him. Once she heard him say, “We have to eliminate all these troublemakers—journalists, writers, protesters. They, their families, their friends, their children—they must disappear from the face of the earth.”
Perhaps the most revolting crimes ascribed to Astiz are the abductions of the two French nuns along with nine other human rights activists in Buenos Aires. Astiz had penetrated the group by posing as a sympathizer, claiming his brother had been kidnapped by the regime. Sister Alice Domont, 41, was utterly taken in. After one torture session, she asked fellow victim Solarz, “Did they take the tall blond boy too?” The “boy,” of course, was Astiz. Sister Alice and Sister Leonie Duquet, 61, have not been seen since; French authorities believe they are dead. Swedish officials presume that teenager Dagmar Hagelin, the daughter of an Argentine mother and a Swedish businessman father, is alive, but there is no evidence to support such optimism.
In the period between 1976 and 1978, up to 15,000 Argentine civilians disappeared after capture by security forces. Many were apparently taken to the navy school “engine room” where Astiz operated. Between electric shock sessions, Solarz says, she and other prisoners were kept hooded. They were chained, forbidden to speak, and forced to lie on urine-soaked straw. Music was played at full volume to drown out the victims’ screams. Though notorious, the “school” was only one of Argentina’s nine torture centers.
The U.S.-educated son of a wealthy rear admiral, Astiz was a bright young officer with parachuting and combat diving qualifications. Apparently his fervent anti-Communism helped him justify his 1976 transformation into a torturer. When his acts became notorious, authorities sent him under an assumed name to serve the Argentine government in Paris and Pretoria, South Africa. Each time, Astiz was exposed. His next posting was South Georgia.
Though Britain and Argentina are not technically at war, the hostilities are covered by the 1949 Geneva Convention. Ironically, it provided Astiz a protection that he apparently denied to others. The Convention states: “No physical or mental torture…may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatsoever.”