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Former Argentine Prisoner Testifies Of Torture

March 29, 1988

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A former Argentine prisoner seeking $10 million in damages from a former general Monday faced the man he called the ″lord of death and life″ and described years of imprisonment and torture.

″They laid me down on a table,″ said Horacio Martinez-Baca. ″They tied my arms and legs. They put electric shocks on my genitals and my gums, and they asked who were my friends.″

There were also beatings, freezing showers, death threats and ″probably the worst torture,″ solitary confinement in an unheated, windowless cell for days at a time, said Martinez-Baca.

A few yards away at a courtroom table sat Carlos Suarez Mason, 64, who as commander of the First Army Corps in Buenos Aires oversaw the military prisons in which Martinez-Baca was held.

″The prisoners used to call him the lord of death and life,″ said Martinez-Baca, who was arrested in 1976, six days after a military coup in Argentina, and released in 1980.

More than three years after fleeing Argentina, Suarez Mason was arrested in January 1987 at his home in Foster City, south of San Francisco.

He is fighting extradition on charges of 43 murders and 23 kidnappings, allegedly committed by soldiers under his command from 1976 to 1979 during a military campaign against suspected leftists.

The civil suit by Martinez-Baca is one of three by Argentinians now living in the United States who say they were imprisoned and tortured, or their relatives killed, by Suarez Mason’s soldiers or police.

U.S. courts have allowed suits against foreigners in their jurisdiction for certain types of human rights violations, including torture, prolonged detention and summary execution.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti declared a default March 15 after the former general failed to respond to the suit or answer pre-trial questions from Martinez-Baca’s lawyer. The judge ruled that the trial would be limited to the amount in damages Suarez Mason must pay.

At Monday’s session, San Francisco attorney Ray Archuleta appeared and said he was representing Suarez Mason, who in failing to respond to the suit had said he spent his last $100,000 on lawyers in the extradition.

But the judge said Suarez Mason had no right to take part in a hearing after a default, ordered Archuleta to the back of the courtroom, and silenced Suarez Mason when he tried to intervene during testimony.

After testimony from other witnesses, including two Argentinians whose relatives disappeared in military custody, Conti told Martinez-Baca’s lawyers to submit documents justifying their claims for damages including lost wages, emotional distress and punitive damages.

Though Suarez Mason now pleads poverty, investigations are continuing in Argentina into the disappearance of substantial sums from Austral, an airline on whose board he sat, and YPF, the state petrochemical monopoly he headed, said Samuel Issacharoff, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights who helped argue the case.

Martinez-Baca was a labor union lawyer and former local government official in Mendoza, Argentina, when the military took power. He said he was never told, at any time in the next four years, why he was being held.

One time, his jailers told him to say his last words and acted as if he would be killed, he said. The military allowed him to leave the country just as Argentina’s Supreme Court was about to order his release, Martinez-Baca said.

He said he filed the suit as ″a deterrent for people who think they are the master of life and death.″

Another witness, Rabbi Marshall Meyer of New York City, lived in Buenos Aires from 1959 to 185 and was a member of a commission appointed by President Raul Alfonsin to study ″disappearances″ under the former military regime.

The military government ran ″a punctiliously operated mass murder campaign with some of the most savage brutality the world has known,″ Meyer said.

He said the commission’s official figure of 8,960 murders during the period is probably 4,000 to 5,000 too low.

The majority of the ″disappearances″ were carried out by soldiers, federal police and local police in the Buenos Aires district, all under Suarez Mason’s command, Meyer said.

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