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ARGENTINA | 02-05-2024 08:57

Horacio Méndez Carreras, human rights lawyer who tracked murder of French nuns, dies at 86

Heralded human rights lawyer, who was born in 1937 and passed away on Monday, worked with Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo as plaintiff in the trial probing crimes against humanity committed at ESMA Navy Mechanics School. In 1984, he was contracted by the French state to pursue an almost impossible case: investigating the forced disappearances of French nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet.

Horacio Méndez Carreras, the indefatigable human rights lawyer who acted as a plaintiff in cases probing the disappearance of French citizens during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, has died at the age of 86.

Méndez Carreras passed away on Monday (April 29), just days before his 87th birthday. He was laid to rest on Wednesday morning at the Jardín de Paz cemetery in Pilar before friends and family.

The Buenos Aires-born lawyer had a distinguished track record and was a noted human rights campaigner. He was hired by the French government to act as the plaintiff in several cases involving missing citizens, including Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, two nuns who were held captive in the ESMA clandestine detention centre. 

Méndez Carreras also served as a defence lawyer for victims and their families in a high-profile court case investigating crimes against humanity at the ESMA, the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires. The trial, which exposed widespread torture and extrajudicial killings, led to convictions for naval officers Alfredo Astiz, Jorge ‘Tigre’ Acosta and Antonio Pernías, among others.

For many years over the past century, Méndez Carreras ran a human rights column in the Buenos Aires Herald. He was a close friend of the former editor Robert Cox and many of the newspaper’s former staff.

He was also a member of CELS (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales) human rights group and was a close friend of the NGO’s founder Emilio Mignone, also participating in trials held in Paris.


Dedication

Méndez Carreras was born in the nation’s capital in May 1937, and graduated from the law school of the University of Buenos Aires in 1962, dedicating the rest of his life to that profession. 

In the course of over six decades, he won professional recognition for his work as a human rights lawyer, painstakingly researching and studying his cases as he worked out of his Diagonal Norte law office.

Méndez Carreras is associated with many key trials and investigations dating back to the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, which embarked upon a campaign of state terrorism after coming to power. Among others, he worked with the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.

In 1984, the lawyer was contracted by the French state to pursue an investigation into the forced disappearances of French nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, along with several other citizens. 

The government in Paris went out of its way to find a lawyer independent of both the Raúl Alfonsín administration and human rights organisations to ensure impartiality. Their choice fell on Méndez Carreras and he dedicated all his efforts to his mission, travelling across the country to make enquiries and acting as a true field lawyer, tirelessly searching for evidence and reconstructing the horrific circumstances in which the victims were killed. 

The French authorities had asked Méndez Carreras specifically to verify how the nuns had disappeared and to identify and bring to justice those responsible. He proved exceptionally worthy of his hire, despite the difficulty of the enterprise – the conviction for the crimes eventually arrived 25 years later.

Duquet was abducted in La Matanza and transferred to ESMA, where Domon was already being held there along with 10 other people previously seized at the Santa Cruz church in an operation involving Astiz. 

As proven at the trial, the nuns were tossed into the sea on one of the military junta’s infamous ‘death flights.’ Their bodies appeared a few days later near Santa Teresita, washed up on shore, and were buried in unmarked graves. Méndez Carreras’ tireless struggle and work from the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology (EAAF) permitted their identification.

Méndez Carreras also acted as a plaintiff in a massive trial probing crimes against humanity committed at the ESMA, which saw infamous figures like Astiz, Pernías, Acosta in the dock, and his expertise saw him intervene in several other high-profile cases.

 

Tributes

The veteran lawyer’s case history, as well as his defence of human rights, led to Méndez Carreras often suffering exclusion, harassment and persecution, from the military dictatorship as well as peers.

A gang of the Triple A paramilitary went looking for him at his law office in late 1975. He suffered other attacks, at his workplace and on the streets. Intelligence agents spied on the companies that contracted him with many of the latter dispensing with his services.

News of his passing prompted a rush of heartfelt messages, with peers and friends describing as an "excellent human being and professional" and recalling his "great work for memory and justice."

"Horacio Arturo Méndez Carreras has died, the only liberal I ever knew who confronted the genocidal dictatorship. A valiant fighter in the worst moments which show the true nature of people. A huge hug to his daughters!" wrote lawyer Marcelo Parrilli.

Author and journalist Uki Goñi also mourned the passing of his friend in a series of posts on the X social network.

"Last night Horacio Méndez Carreras, the lawyer of the French state for the French nuns murdered out of ESMA, Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon, died. The nemesis of Alfredo Astiz, whom he brought to trial as from the 1980s, a former collaborator of the Herald and a close friend of Robert Cox and mine,” wrote Goñi.

“The person who did the most to shadow Astiz from the early 1980s before the courts of law, my friend and Buenos Aires Herald colleague, Horacio Mendez Carreras. He tirelessly roamed the country seeking evidence of the murder of the French victims of the dictatorship and was an infinitely patient collaborator when researching my book," he added.

 

From our senior editor

Times Senior Editor Michael Soltys would like to underline Marcelo Parrilli’s perception of the unlikely human rights hero who emerged from centre-right ranks by pointing to such details entirely atypical of that militancy as his membership of the Jockey Club. There he gave talks more than once on another passion: his fascination with the first quarter of the 19th century, especially here in Argentina and in Europe. In particular he had an obsession with Napoleon, with the bicentenary of Waterloo in 2015 finding him on that very battlefield in Belgium.

Nevertheless, his centre-right leanings did not prevent him from offering his human rights expertise to the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Presidency during its second term in the form of an ultimately frustrating Foreign Ministry post. 

Not only an excellent person, as testified above, but a complete human being. Rest in peace, Horacio.


– TIMES

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