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ARGENTINA | 22-02-2020 12:19

Relatives keep up fight to uncover truth about ARA San Juan sinking

Investigations into submarine tragedy continue; Government preparing four iniatives to honour lives of 44 crew-members who died in tragedy, including trip to vessel’s final resting place.

Alberto Fernández’s government is preparing a series of initiatives to pay tribute to the lost crew of the ARA San Juan submarine, almost two-and-a-half years after its sinking.

Meanwhile, as family members of the victims continue their own search for answers, the courts are moving forward with the criminal investigation probing the actions of senior officers in the Argentine Navy.

After at least two meetings with relatives of the 44 crewmembers who lost their lives in the tragedy, Defence Minister Agustín Rossi announced last week that the government would comply with their requests.

“We listened to the different demands of each of the families, in order to provide them with solutions,” Rossi explained.

The ARA San Juan disappeared mysteriously in November 2017 on route to Argentina’s naval base in Mar del Plata. Its crushed wreckage was located almost exactly one year later on November 16, 2018, by the Seabed Constructor, a ship owned by US search firm Ocean Infinity, after a long, traumatic search for the submarine that drew attention from across the globe.

The government is planning at least four initiatives to remember the crew: a memorial, a ceremony at sea where the ship sank, a web platform with detailed information on the crew and the submarine, and post-mortem promotions for the 44 sailors who lost their lives.

“All the news was well received,” Luis Tagliapietra, a father of a late crew-member, told the Times. “In fact, they were requests that we had been making to the previous government since [the first day] the submarine was found. They clearly had not been dismissed and were transmitted by [then] Navy Chief-ofStaff José Luis Villán, to the current minister,”

Tagliapietra is the father of A lejandro Tagliapietra, a 27-year-old lieutenant who died in the sea tragedy.

“From the human point of view, we found a huge difference compared to the previous minister,” Tagliapietra said, referring to Oscar Aguad, the Defence minister when the ship disappeared.

MEMORY

Rossi has promised to build a memorial in Mar del Plata, where the submarine was due to return. It was also there that the largest group of relatives settled, whilethe search for the submarine was ongoing. Many of them now live in that area and, by consensus, the Atlantic coastal city was chosen to have a place to leave flowers for their dead. It is still unclear exactly where the permanent memorial is going to be located.

As the ship was never salvaged, the relatives have had no chance to bury their loved ones. The possibility of having a memorial – like those which commemorate the victims of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, whose bodies were disappeared by the Junta – is seen by many of the group as a way of being able to move forward with the mourning process.

As trailed by other outlets this week, the Defence Ministry is also preparing a trip to where the submarine sank and its final resting ground in September or October. All the relatives are expected to set sail on board the icebreaker Almirante Irízar to the area for a ceremony, which will take place at sea.

“This was an idea of mine that I discussed with the rest of the relatives,” Tagliapietra said in an interview. “I had been in the area when the submarine was discovered [with the Seabed Constructor]. It was very important for me to leave something there for my son.”

Rossi has appointed his Cabinet chief Ana Clara Alberdi, as a liaison with the family members of the ARA San Juan. She has been instructed to help the families with all the requests they have to file before the courts, in order to obtain a certificate of the presumption of death, a necessary procedure for post-mortem promotions of Navy officers.

According to sources, President Fernández wants to hold a ceremony at the Casa Rosada to honour the deceased too, though no date has been pencilled in yet.

Finally, the relatives have asked the government to create a website with information about the submarine, which had been in rotation for the Argentine Navy since 1986. They want to share data and information about their fallen loved ones. Rossi confirmed the Defence Ministry would move forward with that as well.

TRUTH

Three investigations are currently underway in Argentina into the tragedy, as experts strive to find out fully what happened to the submarine and how it sank.

Last year, a bicameral congressional committee delivered an extensive report on the sinking. Most of its members pointed to the Navy for the damage the vessel suffered leading up to the tragedy of the ARA San Juan. A minority, made up of deputies and senators from Macri’s Cambiemos coalition, sought to separate Aguad and the former president from the legal investigation.

Within the Navy, an administrative investigation is now underway, which will lead to the holding of military councils to determine where responsibility lies. Rossi has asked that these proceedings be accelerated, sources at the Ministry confirmed to the Times.

On Thursday, the government announced its long-trailed renewal of the leadership of the Armed Forces. That was a measure which had been pending, ever since Fernández took office on December 10.

Villán, who was on good terms with the relatives of the submarine crew, has been replaced by Rear-Admiral Julio Horacio Guardia, currently Fleet commander, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1985. Like the rest of the chiefs appointed by Fernández, he did not join the Armed Forces during the last military dictatorship.

Caleta Olivia Federal Judge Marta Yáñez is overseeing the criminal case for the sinking of ARA San Juan. On January 31, the judge indicted six Navy officers for malfeasance and culpable negligence. Yañez did not consider it necessary to question Marcelo Srur, who headed the Navy at the time of the sinking, nor Macri or Aguad, as the plaintiffs had requested.

“From the evidence collected so far, it does not emerge either that engineer Mauricio Macri or lawyer Oscar Aguad were aware of the defects that the ARA San Juan had, or that the military authorities who depended on them had been acting in an illegal manner or through abuses of authority,” Yañez wrote in a ruling at the time.

Shortly after taking office, Rossi contacted the judge to make himself available and express interest in the investigation. According to Tagliapietra, who is directly involved in the proceedings as a lawyer for several families, it is likely that further expertise will be required in the case. The Defence Ministry will need to provide resources to make this happen, he added.

Lawyers for the families appealed Judge Yáñez’s decision, arguing that they consider it insufficient. The relatives show no sign of letting up in their quest to find out exactly what happened to their loved ones on November 15, 2017.

In the coming weeks, we will learn how the case will unfold.

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Luciana Bertoia

Luciana Bertoia

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