Suspected Argentinian torturer who taught at Sorbonne extradited by France
A former Argentinian police officer who spent years working as an academic at the Sorbonne has been extradited by France to face trial over the disappearance of a student who went missing during the “dirty war” in the late 1970s.
Mario Sandoval, 66, is accused of being one of the most notorious torturers of the Argentinian dictatorship era – a man nicknamed Churrasco (Barbecue) for his habit of electrocuting people on metal bedframes.
While suspected of links to the murder of hundreds of people, he was extradited over the alleged kidnapping in October 1976 of Hernán Abriata, an architecture student whose body has never been found.
Sandoval, who has dismissed the accusations as fabrications, fled Argentina after the military junta fell and had lived in France since 1985, where he had become a professor at the Sorbonne’s Institute of Latin American Studies (IHEAL), in Paris, and the University of Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, outside the French capital.
His colleagues at both universities called for his arrest when they recognised his picture during his legal battles.
“The fact that Mario Sandoval taught at IHEAL as an external lecturer between 1999 and 2005 casts a shadow over the history of our institution,” IHEAL said in a statement, adding that staff were “very pleased” that he would face justice.
Despite being a French citizen he was eligible for extradition as the alleged crime took place before he became a national and was sent back on a plane that left Paris at about midnight on Sunday, bringing to an end an eight-year extradition battle.
“Everything happened as expected,” a lawyer for the Argentinian government told Agence France-Presse.
About 30,000 people were “disappeared” during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.
Abriata was detained at the infamous navy mechanics school (Esma), in Buenos Aires, where an estimated 5,000 people were held and tortured after the military coup of 1976, many of them thrown from planes into the sea or the River Plate.
He was taken away from his parents’ home in Buenos Aires on the night of 30 October 1976 when they said they answered a ring at the front door and saw a man in military fatigues who introduced himself as “Sandoval, from Federal Coordination” – a feared police unit linked to disappearances and torture.
The man told them Abriata was wanted for questioning, under a “routine procedure”. They never saw their son again.
Carlos Loza, a friend of Abriata and a fellow detainee at the Esma, told a judge that Abriata was tortured several times.
Loza said the last time he saw Abriata “was between 4 and 5 January 1977”, adding that he was being “transferred” – a euphemism for being taken away to be executed.
“[Sandoval] was a very strange guy, he did intelligence,” one dirty war survivor, Alfredo Buzzalino, told prosecutors. “He was the most intellectually prepared guy in the Esma. If he could kill you, he killed you.”
Sophie Thonon, a lawyer acting for Argentina, told AFP that Abriata’s 92-year-old mother, Beatriz Cantarini de Abriata, had been “desperately waiting” for Sandoval to “explain himself before Argentinian justice”.
Sandoval’s lawyers had argued that he would not get a fair trial in Argentina, where they said he would face torture or poor detention conditions. But their appeals to the European court of human rights to take up his case failed.
The French council of state, which advises the government on legal matters, approved his extradition in August 2018, leading Sandoval to appeal.
The constitutional council determined that no statute of limitations could be applied to an “ongoing” case, citing the fact that Abriata’s body had never been found.
“I hope consular officials … will ensure that the conditions of his detention pending trial will be decent and limited in time,” Sandoval’s lawyer, Jérôme Rousseau, told AFP.
Sandoval unsuccessfully sued several French media organisations for defamation in 2008 after they published stories about his alleged role in the dictatorship.
AFP and Reuters contributed to this report