Astiz, an Argentine naval Lieutenant Commander (OF-3), was captured by British military forces who retook the island of South Georgia in the southern Atlantic in April 1982 during the Falklands War. The Argentine occupation of South Georgia in March 1982 had precipitated the Falklands conflict between Britain and Argentina.
Lieutenant Commander Alfredo Astiz commanded a special team of fifteen Tactical Divers Group frogmen (Buzo Tactico), dubbed los lagartos (the lizards), which carried out the first act of aggression in what developed into the Falklands War. On 19 March 1982, they landed on South Georgia, under the guise of workers of the Argentine scrap metal dealer Constantino Davidoff. Officially they were to scrap three derelict whaling stations at Leith Harbour which had been purchased by their employer in 1979. They dressed up in uniform and raised the Argentine flag, in full view of a British Antarctic Survey party.
British forces retook the island a month later, 26 April, and Astiz and his men surrendered.
Astiz is reported to have committed several war crimes during this period, notably attempting to lure Royal Navy helicopters to land on a helipad he had mined. The pilots were suspicious, and landed elsewhere. Astiz also encouraged Royal Marines to cross a minefield although, luckily, the mines did not detonate as their trigger mechanisms had been frozen solid by the sub-zero weather conditions. Astiz was never tried for these crimes.
Soon after the British recapture of South Georgia, Nicanor Costa Méndez, the Argentine Foreign Minister, said that Argentina was technically in a state of war with the UK.
At about the same time an Argentine prisoner (Félix Artuso) was shot dead by a Royal Marine who mistakenly thought he was trying to scuttle a captured submarine. The UK informed Argentina, through Brazilian diplomats, that a board of inquiry would be convened under the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions to review Artuso’s death. The next day the UK claimed the Argentine prisoners were not prisoners of war because they were taken before Argentina declared hostilities. Six days later they changed their mind. In a 1983 article, Meyer opines that the UK changed its position because it had already implied the Argentine detainees were prisoners of war by applying provisions of the Geneva Conventions.
About three weeks after the Argentine prisoners were captured, the UK announced it would repatriate all 151 soldiers and 39 civilians, five of whom were not Argentine citizens, held in detention on South Georgia. Astiz and his men were initially held prisoner on a Royal Navy ship at Ascension Island. However, he was kept prisoner after his men had been freed to return to Argentina – why you may ask?
According to Foreign Office files opened at the National Archives under the 30 years rule, Astiz’s capture caused a major headache for the British, once it was known who he actually was.
Astiz was an intelligence officer, Marine and maritime commando in the Argentine Navy during the military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla during the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (1976–1983). He was known as El Ángel Rubio de la Muerte (the ‘Blond Angel of Death’), and had a reputation as a notorious torturer, infiltrating opposition groups, identifying their members, and arranging for their kidnap.
Astiz had worked at the Naval Mechanical School, Beunos Aires, known as Esma, which was the biggest secret torture and killing centre set up by the military (there were nine in total). Approximately 5,000 prisoners were taken to Esma, with 90% not making it out alive. Some were killed by firing squad while others were thrown from planes – drugged but still alive – into the Atlantic Ocean. More than 70 of those who did make it out were among the witnesses in the 22-month trial.
Once his identity came to light Swedish and French diplomats asked London to question him about his involvement in the kidnap of a 17-year-old Swedish girl and the murder of two French nuns in Argentina. As the Argentine prisoners were being shipped to Ascension Island to be handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and flown home, Sweden asked to question Astiz. The French government asked that Astiz be held while they sought legal remedies for the ‘disappearances’ of the nuns. Both countries stated that they had eyewitnesses for the ‘disappearances.’ The UK initially responded that concerned parties should talk to the ICRC, as it would be taking custody of the prisoners. The ICRC refused the countries’ requests to talk to Astiz if it took custody of him. Both nations stepped up diplomatic pressure on the UK not to transfer Astiz to the ICRC.
One memo from a Ministry of Defence (MoD) official, dated 18 May 1982, stated:
“My Secretary of State’s [John Nott] main concern is that we have already steered very close to the wind in our treatment of Astiz – his custody on board ship is a breach of Article 22 of the Geneva Convention and there is, of course, the point that we have shown discrimination in our handling of him compared with the treatment given to his men…. Mr Nott feels that the only course of action is to get him off our hands as soon as possible.”
The UK decided to send home the 189 other detainees, “as an act of compassion.” Astiz was to be held until “the end of the belligerency”, initially on Ascension. Two weeks later, under pressure from public opinion at home and by the French and Swedish governments, the UK decided to buy time by transporting Astiz by ship from Ascension to the UK. Whilst aboard the Royal Navy vessel, Astiz was not content to be a model prisoner, assaulting a guard and fashioning a ‘primitive dagger’ from a bed spring, according to released documents. While Astiz was in transit, the UK announced he would be made available for interview by representatives of the French and Swedish governments. Soon after the Argentine government made veiled threats against the welfare of three UK journalists they had arrested as spies, and linked their release to that of Astiz.
Once in the UK, Astiz was detained, in a three-room officer’s suite, at the Royal Military Police Roussillon barracks in Chichester – where the UK became embroiled in a deeper diplomatic row with Sweden and France, both of which requested that he be handed over for questioning about the kidnappings and murder. However, according to Whitehall lawyers, Astiz could not be handed over to another country, and the English courts did not have the power to try Astiz, as the crimes of which he was accused did not involve British nationals. Under the Geneva Convention, Astiz could not be extradited to face trial on either of the alleged offenses and, as a prisoner of war, he was required to give only his name, rank and serial number.
Astiz was questioned in June, but it was performed by a Detective Chief Superintendent of the Sussex Constabulary. Both times he was questioned Astiz remained silent. The UK gave a detailed report of the fruitless interviews to the Swedish and French governments. Astiz was repatriated to Argentina on 10 June 1982, just before the start of the battle for Port Stanley and the Argentine capitulation on 14 June.
Astiz was discharged from the military in 1998 after defending his actions in a press interview.
In 2011, Astiz was found guilty of crimes against humanity by an Argentinian court, which heard evidence that he and other members of the unit were complicit in the murders of up to 20,000 fellow citizens during Argentina’s so-called ‘Dirty War’ during the 1970s and early 1980s.
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BBC News (2011) Argentina ‘Angel of Death’ Alfredo Astiz Convicted. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-15472396. [Accessed: 09 May, 2018].
Beunos Aires (2017) Alfredo Astiz: ‘I Shall Never Apologise for Defending My Homeland”. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.batimes.com.ar/news/argentina/alfredo-astiz-i-shall-never-apologise-for-defending-my-homeland.phtml. [Accessed: 09 May, 2018].
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Trial International (2016) Alfredo Astiz. Available from World Wide Web: https://trialinternational.org/latest-post/alfredo-astiz/. [Accessed: 09 May, 2018].
UPI (1982) Lt. Cmdr. Alfredo Astiz, the Captured Argentine Naval Officer… Available from World Wide Web: https://www.upi.com/Archives/1982/06/05/Lt-Cmdr-Alfredo-Astiz-the-captured-Argentine-naval-officer/6553392097600/. [Accessed: 09 May, 2018].