Argentina took another step towards confronting one of the darkest chapters in its history yesterday with the arrest of a pilot alleged to have played a direct role in “death flights” during the so-called Dirty War.
Julio Alberto Poch, 57, a retired naval pilot, is accused over the deaths of 1,000 people who were drugged and thrown from aircraft on the orders of the ruling junta between 1976 and 1983.
Mr Poch, a pilot for transavia.com, a Dutch budget airline, was arrested in front of passengers minutes before his Amsterdam-bound flight was about to take off from Manises airport in the Spanish city of Valencia on Tuesday.
Only one senior officer has been jailed for taking part in the notorious flights, in which left-wingers and other dissidents were “disappeared” by being dumped into rivers and the South Atlantic.
Mr Poch’s arrest is likely to renew controversy in Argentina over the way in which the country has pursued those who carried out crimes against humanity during the dictatorship.
After the fall of the military regime in 1983, Jorge Rafael Videla, head of the junta, was among the generals convicted of human rights crimes, including torture, murders and kidnappings, but, despite a series of trials, many “foot soldiers” remain at large.
Mr Poch is wanted in connection with four criminal investigations into “death flights”. He is alleged to have worked as a pilot attached to the notorious Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, where the junta’s opponents were tortured and murdered.
After a year-long international investigation, an Argentine judge has alleged that Mr Poch boasted to colleagues about how he disposed of “terrorists” and was unrepentant about the military’s role during the dictatorship.
The pilot, who holds joint Dutch and Argentine nationality, was detained at the request of the Argentine Government by officers from Spain’s elite Fugitive Squad, which tracks down Nazi war criminals and mafia bosses. He is in custody in Spain but is expected to face proceedings for extradition to Argentina this week.
Mr Poch has worked for transavia since the early 1980s, when he fled Argentina after the fall of the dictatorship, according to sources close to the investigation in Argentina.
Judge Sergio Torres, who is leading the investigation, flew to the Netherlands in December to take statements from Mr Poch’s colleagues. Mr Poch allegedly confessed to other airline staff that he had taken part in the “death flights”. “He related the way the prisoners were thrown into the sea,” said a source.
One pilot told investigators that Mr Poch told them “exactly how he threw out people who were still alive because the idea was to execute them.” Mr Poch allegedly justified the killings by saying “it was a war” and that the victims had been drugged.
In 2005 Adolfo Scilingo, 62, a retired Argentine naval officer, was jailed for 640 years by a Spanish court for crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial execution. He was convicted of 30 counts of murder relating to drugging political prisoners and throwing them out of jets.
A report for the Argentine Government said that more than 11,000 people died or disappeared during the “Dirty War” but human rights groups believe the real number is closer to 30,000. At least 13,000 are said to have been killed by left-wing guerrillas during the same period.
In 2005 the Argentine Supreme Court annulled two amnesties shielding hundreds of former officers from charges of human rights abuses. Courts have handed down severe prison sentences for members of the security forces convicted of kidnapping, torturing and killing dissidents.
Transavia, which is owned by Air France-KLM, is to review its checks on staff after the arrest.