As soon as he became president, Alfonsin set up a commission, the CONADEP, led by the famous writer Ernesto Sabato with a brief to shed light on the enforced disappearances perpetrated by the military regime during the previous decade. In a report called “Nunca Más”, the commission listed 9000 cases of enforced disappearances, a figure estimated today at more than 15’000.
On 22 April 1985, a historical trial opened in Buenos Aires to judge the main actors of the dictatorship. General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera were sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes of assassination, illegal confinement and torture. Other leaders of the junta were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. President Carlos Menem granted a pardon to all of them five years later, in 1990, with the result that Emilio Massera was released after only a few years in prison.
In December 1986, faced with discontent on the part of the army following these trials, “the full stop law” was adopted. It gave a deadline of 60 days, to bring an end to complaints against the members of the army and of the police suspected of human rights violations. The following year, new unrest on the part of the armed forces forced President Alfonsin to go even further by promulgating the law called “due obedience” which guaranteed impunity to all of the military personnel with a lower rank than colonel.
In November 1998, Judge Maria Servini de Cubria ordered that Massera, the person in charge of ESMA, be arrested and charged for his responsibility in the kidnapping and suppression of identity of minors, an offence which had been expressly excluded from the amnesty laws and for which he had not been tried in 1985. He was put under house arrest.
The year after, the Buenos Aires’ Federal Court of Appeal rejected Massera’s appeal, which claimed that this crime had been included in the 1985 judgment and was therefore subject to prescription. The court’s decision created a precedent by qualifying this offence as a crime against humanity, and therefore not subject to prescription. Based on a new constitutional amendment introduced in 1994, the House of Appeal recognised the primacy of international law over national law. The Supreme Court confirmed this decision by the Court of Appeal. Further proceedings against Massera for appropriation of property which belonged to disappeared people, were then opened up.
In March 2001, in a further historical decision, Federal Judge Gabriel Cavallo accepted a complaint filed by the lawyers of an Argentinean / Chilean couple against army officers for human rights violations, based on his judgement that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional and invalid. In July 2002, the Federal Court of Appeal confirmed this judgment. The door had once again been prised open to track army officers suspected of human rights violations.
The political will to end impunity became stronger with the election of a new president Nestor Kirchner on 25 May 2003. Two months after his accession to power, he quashed a decree, which blocked any possibility of extraditing army officers responsible for the repression during the dictatorship. He also openly supported the invalidation of the amnesty laws.
In July 2003, 45 former army officers, including Massera, were put under an arrest warrant from the Spanish judicial authorities. Spain demanded their extradition to be judged for State terrorism, genocide and torture. At the beginning of December, Germany also ordered an arrest warrant against Videla, Massera and other army officers suspected of being responsible for the death of two German students who were assassinated in secret detention centres during the “dirty war”. France also asked for Massera’s extradition.
In December 2003, Massera suffered a cerebrovascular stroke and fell into coma from which, after a while, he slowly recovered. His lawyers then hasten to declare their client mentally unable to defend himself before a court. Judge Maria Servini de Cubria, in a decision which was confirmed on appeal, rejected this argument. A new medical examination was requested following which Massera was declared unfit to stand trial and all proceedings against him, as well as requests for extradition, were suspended.
In August 2004, Massera was ordered to pay 210’000 pesos in compensation to the survivor of a family most of whose members had disappeared at the ESMA.
On 8 November 2010, Massera died at a naval hospital in Buenos Aires. He was 85.