An Argentine court on Tuesday convicted two former Ford executives of involvement in the torture of workers during the country’s 1976-83 military dictatorship, according to the victims’ lawyers.
Former production director, Pedro Muller, 85, and former security manager, Hector Sibila, 90, were found guilty of helping the regime kidnap and torture workers at a factory in Pacheo, north of the capital, Buenos Aires, following a 1976 coup.
While more than 2,700 people have been charged over dictatorship-era crimes, though less than half have been convicted.
This is the first time former executives of a multinational company have been convicted of crimes committed during military rule, a period known as the Dirty War.
Muller and Sibila were sentenced to 10 and 12 years respectively and will likely serve their sentences under house arrest because of their advanced age, according to local media.
The case concerns the 1976 kidnapping and torture of 24 workers employed by Ford at their factory on the outskirts of Buenos Aires during the military regime of General Jorge Rafael Videla, who died in prison in 2013.
The men provided photographs, addresses and other personal information on left-wing union leaders to agents of the dictatorship so that they could be abducted.
The pair also “allowed a detention centre to be set up inside the premises of that factory, in the recreational area, so that the abductees could be interrogated,” according to court papers.
“There they were handcuffed, beaten and had their faces covered so they could not see who was interrogating them,” the accusation against Muller and Sibila said.
The court said the two men “were necessary participants in the illegal deprivation of liberty, aggravated by the use of violence and threats” with the aim of political persecution.
The court also found that Sibila was present during at least one torture session.
The Dirty War
Victims and their families linked arms and held photos of their relatives as the verdict was announced. Some held or wore white scarves, an emblem of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of women whose family members were disappeared during the Dirty War.
Some 30,000 people disappeared during the dictatorship, according to rights groups including Amnesty International. Victims were abducted, tortured and even thrown into the sea from helicopters while still alive, many are still unaccounted for.
Children of the disappeared were also kidnapped and given to wealthy childless couples, in some cases with the assistance of the country’s Catholic Church.
Following two decades of amnesty after Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983, the state threw its weight behind trial and punishment for Dirty War crimes under the presidencies of Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner from 2003 to 2015.
The country’s current president, Mauricio Macri, has said independent courts, not politicians should administer justice, however, his critics accuse him of being soft on the dictatorship.
Following Tuesday’s ruling, lawyers for the victims said they may sue Ford in the United States Federal Court, with one of the lawyers, Tomas Ojea Qintana, telling Reuters news agency that Ford Motor Company had direct control of its Argentinian subsidiary.
However, they will face an uphill battle in bringing a successful lawsuit in the US, according to analysts.
Foreign nationals can sue in US courts, but several decisions by the US Supreme Court over the past years have made it harder for plaintiffs to sue corporations for alleged violations abroad.
A 2013 Supreme Court decision held that plaintiffs have to show their claim “touches and concerns” the US, a high bar to clear, legal experts said.
The workers would need to prove that the actions of the Argentinian subsidiary were “completely controlled” by Ford’s US parent, a fact that is hard to show in most cases, Ralph Steinhardt, a law professor at the George Washington University told Reuters.
Ford Argentina said in a statement that it was not part of the case and had participated fully with prosecutors. Ford in the US could not be immediately reached for comment.