BUENOS AIRES – A former military pilot extradited earlier this week by Spain denied in court that he participated in “death flights” during Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, judicial officials said.
Julio Poch, one of the suspects in the disappearance of two French nuns at the hands of a death squad, testified for several hours Friday before federal Judge Sergio Torres, who is leading the investigation into crimes at the Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA, in Buenos Aires, the most notorious of the military regime’s clandestine jails and torture chambers.
The officials said Poch, extradited on Thursday, refuted testimony by colleagues of his at Amsterdam-based airline Transavia who said he boasted about piloting some of the “death flights,” operations in which more than 1,000 political prisoners from ESMA were drugged and then hurled from military aircraft into the Atlantic.
Torres is investigating more than 800 cases of “illegal detentions, torture, injuries, disappearances and deaths” at ESMA.
Among other charges, Poch is accused in the disappearances of a Swedish teenage girl, Dagmar Hagelin, French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet and Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh.
Poch, a naturalized Dutch citizen who worked for Transavia, a unit of Air France-KLM, was arrested on Sept. 22 at the Manises airport in the eastern Spanish city of Valencia during a scheduled stop of a Transavia flight to Amsterdam.
He was detained on an international warrant issued by the Argentine government.
Spain’s National Court ruled in January that Poch could be turned over to Argentina as long as Buenos Aires promised he would not be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
The documentation submitted by Argentina was sufficient to justify Poch’s extradition for offenses that constitute crimes against humanity and, as such, not subject to any statute of limitations, the Spanish judges found.
The Spanish government approved the extradition of the ex-military pilot, now being jailed outside Buenos Aires, on April 9.
Argentina had contacted the Dutch government in late 2008 to request Poch’s extradition, citing in support of the request testimony from one of the suspect’s Transavia colleagues that Poch had told him about the death flights and had even defended the practice.
Dutch officials did not act on the Argentine request prior to Poch’s arrest in Spain.
Poch was a former navy lieutenant who was assigned to ESMA during the military junta’s “dirty war” against leftists, a campaign that led to the deaths of as many as 30,000 people, few of them with any connection whatsoever to armed groups.