Former police officer Mario ‘Churrasco’ Sandoval, who was extradited from France in 2019, was sentenced on Wednesday to 15 years in prison for the abduction and disappearance of a student during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
A federal court in Buenos Aires found Sandoval, 69, guilty of "illegally depriving [a citizen] of liberty, aggravated by his status as a public official and by the application of torture in a context of political persecution" within a trial investigating crimes against humanity, according to the Télam state news agency.
Hundreds of other cases of illegal repression are pending against Sandoval but France only accepted his extradition in the case of the architecture student and Peronist University Youth (JUP in its Spanish acronym) militant Hernán Abriata, 24, who was kidnapped on October 30, 1976 and taken to the ex-ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Núñez, Buenos Aires.
Sandoval learnt the conviction from his cell in the Campo de Mayo military barracks. Abriata remains missing to this day. The prosecution and the plaintiffs had requested sentences ranging from 20 years in prison to life imprisonment.
"It was a very long quest for justice. The family had identified those responsible for the abduction,” said Sol Hourcade, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
The convicted former police officer argued during the trial that the authorities had the wrong Sandoval and that the kidnapping had been carried out by a namesake, but the court considered overwhelming evidence and testimony against him.
"I was at Hernán’s side when they knocked on the door. They were repressors with Sandoval first in line. We were in a two-room flat. When Sandoval took him away, he showed me his police identification card and his photo," Mónica Dittmar, Abriata’s girlfriend at the time of the abduction, told reporters.
The sentenced defendant had lived in France since 1985. His extradition was requested within the framework of a mega-case investigating around 800 cases of disappearances and tortures at the ex-ESMA, one of Argentina’s biggest clandestine detention centres during the era of state terrorism, housing some 5,000 political prisoners, of whom only 100 survived.
Survivors claim Sandoval, apparently given the nickname "grilled steak" for torturing prisoners tied to a metal bed frame with electricity, was particularly active at ESMA.
Sandoval fled to France in 1985, two years after the military junta fell, and built a new life there as a defence and security consultant. He taught at several institutions including the Sorbonne and the Institute of Higher Latin American Studies in Paris. He was found by a student at the Sorbonne after some ex-ESMA prisoners recognised him from photos.
Sandoval was arrested at his home in the Paris suburbs.
Although he gained French nationality in 1997, Argentina successfully obtained his extradition as he was not French at the time of the alleged crimes. Sandoval had unsuccessfully petitioned France's Council of State in a bid to prevent his extradition.
Since the prosecution of leading dictatorship figures resumed in 2006 after a decade of controversial amnesties, more than 1,000 people have been convicted of crimes against humanity in Argentina.
Cases and investigations are ongoing against about another 500 people.