Former Argentine Gen. Carlos Suarez Mason must be returned to his homeland to stand trial for dozens of murders allegedly carried out under his orders, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
"The offenses deal with a period of time that history recalls as marked by death, disappearance and torture," U.S. District Judge D. Lowell Jensen said. "The court thinks it highly improbable that any commander, let alone one with Suarez Mason's demonstrated attention to detail, could be unaware of such massive violations occurring under his nose."
It was not clear, however, whether or when Suarez Mason will actually be sent back to Argentina. Suarez Mason's attorneys have filed an appeal and said they will request a stay of extradition from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals within the next few days. The final decision on the extradition will be made by the State Department once all judicial appeals have been exhausted.
Suarez Mason, 64, commanded the 1st Army Corps in Buenos Aires from 1976 to 1979 at the height of the Argentine military government's "dirty war" against suspected leftists.
The Argentine government has estimated that about 9,000 civilians disappeared and were presumed killed during that period, with thousands more jailed and tortured. Some human rights advocates place the figure killed as high as 30,000.
The former general fled Argentina in 1984. He lived quietly in the United States, his neighbors unaware of his unsavory past, until he was arrested last year in the San Francisco suburb of Foster City. He has been held without bail here since then.
The current Argentine government asked for Suarez Mason's extradition on 43 counts of murder, 24 of kidnaping and one of passport fraud. But if he is returned, he will stand trial for only 39 of the murders and the passport fraud. Jensen ruled that a five-year statute of limitations had expired in the kidnaping cases.
Under terms of the U.S.-Argentine extradition treaty, Suarez Mason can be tried only for charges for which extradition is approved. If convicted of the murders, Suarez Mason faces life imprisonment.
Wednesday's hearing was the third in the case. In previous hearings, defense lawyers James Riddet and J. T. Prada argued that no evidence directly linked Suarez Mason to crimes committed by soldiers under his orders.
In addition, the lawyers questioned the extensively documented claim that the Argentine military conducted the "dirty war," suggesting instead that the thousands of human rights violations were carried out by "persons other than military authorities." They also argued that Suarez's alleged offenses were political in nature, thus exempting him from extradition.
But the judge, citing thousands of pages of documents provided by the Argentine government via Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Zanides, found probable cause to believe that Suarez directly ordered his troops to kidnap, torture and murder suspected leftists. He said the political offense exemption did not apply because its intent was to protect citizens rebelling against governments, rather than government officials.
On Monday, another federal judge here ordered Suarez Mason to pay $21.17 million in damages to Horacio Martinez-Baca, an Argentine lawyer imprisoned and tortured during the time the general commanded prisons in and around Buenos Aires. Two similar multimillion-dollar cases are pending against him.
Attorney David Cole of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents the plaintiffs in the suits, said the final outcome of the extradition proceeding will not affect the two pending lawsuits.