Ending a long legal battle lasting eight years, Mario Sandoval, a former police officer linked to the murder of hundreds of people during the brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship, landed on Argentine soil on Monday.
Sandoval, a former professor of Latin American Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Marne-la-Vallé, was arrested 10 days ago at his home near Paris, after French authorities gave the final go-ahead for his extradition.
The 66-year-old, who had been living in France since 1985 and obtained French citizenship with few aware of his full identity, left Paris around midnight on Sunday on a commercial Air France flight. He now faces trial over the disappearance of a student.
Bespectacled and slightly bowed, wearing a dark cap and a blue fleece jacket, Sandoval was escorted by police through Ezeiza International Airport upon his arrival in Argentina. An overcoat hung over his handcuffed hands. Armed police with automatic weapons flanked the group as he was led to a waiting police car, before being taken onto the Comodoro Py federal courthouse.
On Tuesday, Sandoval appeared before investigators, heard the charges against him and declined to testify, the Télam state agency reported, citing judicial sources.
Sandoval had spent the night at a jail cell in Comodoro Py. He will be moved in the coming days to Unit 34 of the Campo de Mayo prison in Buenos Aires Province, though his legal team has asked he be granted house arrest.
Investigators suspect that Sandoval was part of a group of state enforcers who took part in more than 500 cases of kidnappings, torture and murder at a time when thousands were being “disappeared” at the hands of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
But the extradition concerns only the alleged kidnapping in October 1976 of Hernán Abriata, an architecture student and member of the Juventud Universitaria Peronista (Peronist University Youths, JUP) whose body has never been found.
Argentine authorities say investigators have several witness accounts linking Sandoval – described by some as the military junta’s “butcher” – to Abriata’s killing.
Sandoval’s lawyers had argued that he would not get a fair trial in Argentina, claiming he would face torture or poor detention conditions, but their appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) failed.
“The French government probably assumed that if he was extradited under [former president Mauricio Macri], he would be released immediately,” said Daniel Tarnopolsky, the Argentine representative to UNESCO’s International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights (CIPDH).
Tarnopolsky, whose family was abducted and presumed killed during the war, told AFP that under current President Alberto Fernández, Sandoval “will be judged and will not walk away.”
The Foreign Ministry in Buenos Aires said the extradition “consolidates the principle that crimes against humanity should not go unpunished.”
It said Sandoval’s arrival was the result of diplomatic efforts dating from 2012 and the involvement of a French lawyer specialising in human rights.
Sophie Thonon, the lawyer acting for Argentina, told the AFP news agency in an interview that Abriata’s 92-year-old mother Beatriz Cantarini de Abriata had been “desperately waiting” for Sandoval to “explain himself before Argentine justice.”
Sandoval, who has dismissed the accusations as fabrications, fled Argentina after the military junta fell. Despite taking French nationality, Argentina was able to extradite him as the alleged crime took place beforehand.
The former police officer, at one point, was an adviser to former French president Nicolás Sarközy, according to local human rights groups.
In 2016, when then French president François Hollande visited Argentina and La Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires, he was asked through a letter to approve Sandoval’s extradition. During that visit, Hollande announced the decision to declassify government documentation about France’s links with the military dictatorship.
The French Council of State, which advises the government on legal matters, approved his extradition in August 2018, prompting Sandoval to appeal. Its ruling was confirmed December 11, leading to his arrest.
France’s Constitutional Council determined that no statute of limitations could be applied to an “ongoing” case, citing the fact that Abriata’s body has never been found. The same legal status is applicable in the Argentine justice system.
Abriata was detained at the notorious ex-ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Nuñez, where an estimated 5,000 people were held and tortured after the military coup of 1976 – many of them thrown, drugged, from planes into the sea.
“I am not the Sandoval they are looking for,” was the first thing the accused said, according to reports, when French police arrived to arrest him at his home in Nogent-sur-Marne, outside Paris.
“I am a victim of a campaign of defamation and included without contemplation on a blacklist,” he said in his plea before the French courts.
“It’s been eight very long years since the extradition process began in 2012,” Carlos Loza, who was held in a cell with Abriata, told AFP on Monday after Sandoval’s arrival in Argentina.
“Today is the terrible anniversary of our ‘disappearance’ on December 16, 1976,” said Loza, then aged 23 and held in a cell with four others after their arrest at a local Communist Party office in the City neighbourhood of Barracas. “We were all released that January. One committed suicide in 2012, because he could not overcome what we had lived through, another died from an illness.”
Loza says he does not know if Sandoval, who reportedly used the alias “Churrasco” and was known for torturing detainees with electric cattle rods, was involved in his own case.
He and another surviving prisoner are fulfilling what he said was a commitment they made in prison “to testify for justice” against the perpetrators of the dictatorship’s atrocities.
“When we got out, it took us a month to find the courage to go to Hernan’s house,” Loza said. “We thought he had been released too, but when we got there, his sister told us that he never came back.”
Abriata had been married for a few months by the time he was arrested.
“A few years ago, the inscription ‘I love you, H.A.’ was discovered on the walls” of the cell, said Loza. The cell, at the former clandestine detention centre in Nuñez, is now part of a museum to Argentina’s “disappeared.”
Loza, who says he last saw Abriata “between January 4 and 5, 1977,” said he hasn’t slept since Sandoval’s arrest last week.
“I feel the same discomfort that I feel every December 16,” he added.
“Fate decreed that the extradition would be the same day as my abduction, the saddest, most regrettable day of my life.
Bringing ‘the butcher’ of ESMA to justice
The bid to bring Mario Sandoval before Argentina’s courts dates back decades, but the legal battle began in earnest in 2012, when Federal Judge Sergio Torres requested his extradition as part of a case into the disappearances of around 800 individuals who had been detained at the ex-ESMA Navy Mechanics School.
Sandoval, a professor at two French universities, arrived in Buenos Aires Monday to face trial over the disappearance of Hernán Abriata, a 24-year-old recently married architecture student who was arrested as part of an alleged “routine procedure” on December 30, 1976. Abriata remains missing to this day.
Among the witnesses in the Abriata trial is Monica Dittmar, the missing student’s wife. She was present at the family home when Sandoval allegedly arrived to take him away, as were his father and mother.
According to court documents, on October 30, 1976, a police officer showed up at the Abriata family home, identifying himself as “Sandoval, Federal Coordination” and stated that Abriata, who had only been married for a few months, was to come with the officers as part of “a routine procedure.”
Hernán’s mother, Beatriz Rosa Cantarini, is 92 years old. Lawyers for the family this week described her as “relieved and glad” by the news of Sandoval’s extradition. They said she was desperate to see Sandoval extradited before she passed away.
Cantarini has fought for more than four decades to see her son’s alleged murderer face justice. During the years of the military dictatorship, she presented five requests for habeas corpus for her son. Since 2012, she has tirelessly presented letters and petitions to the French government asking for Sandoval’s extradition.
“Sandoval and his men arrived at midnight at our house. With my husband, we were sleeping when we were awoken by noises. We did not know what to attribute them to,” Cantarini said when being interviewed earlier this year.
“We looked out the window and saw that a group of soldiers were aiming long weapons at the house,” she said. “It seemed like a war. It was something awful.”
Some 30,000 people disappeared during Argentina’s last military dictatorship, human rights groups estimate.