A judge in Rome has ordered the trial of former Argentine army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Luis Malatto, who stands accused of the premeditated killing of eight people during Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. The decision comes after Malatto fled Argentina in 2011, seeking refuge in Sicily.

Malatto faces charges of crimes against humanity in Argentina, but the trial has yet to commence due to the country’s legal restrictions against trying individuals in absentia. Despite an extradition request from Argentina in 2014 being denied by Rome due to insufficient evidence, Italy initiated its own investigation in 2015.

The charges against Malatto include his alleged active participation in detention procedures and torture interrogations during the military dictatorship. The victims comprise a diverse group, including a French-Argentinian model, a university rector, a Communist party official, and a soldier.

The revelation of Malatto’s presence in Italy caused controversy in Argentina, with Italian newspapers exposing the fact that he was living freely while justice was sought by the victims’ relatives and the Argentine state.

Viviana Arias, the daughter of one of Malatto’s alleged victims, expressed disbelief at the presence of a genocide suspect living freely, especially given the large number of disappearances during Malatto’s tenure in San Juan.

After the 1976 coup in Argentina, the military systematically suppressed opposition, leading to the reported deaths of around 30,000 people, mostly unarmed civilians. Shockingly, pregnant prisoners were kept alive until giving birth, and approximately 500 babies born in captivity were given to childless military couples.

To date, 133 of these children have been reunited with their biological families. In 1985, two years after Argentina returned to democracy, coup leader Jorge Rafaél Videla was convicted of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.

Italy has a history of involvement in cases related to South American dictatorships, with many individuals associated with such regimes seeking refuge in the country.

Arturo Salerni, representing the victims’ relatives allegedly killed by Malatto, noted that initially, these individuals lived peacefully in Italy. However, ongoing investigations led to prosecutions and convictions.

In 2019, an Italian court sentenced 24 people to life for their involvement in Operation Condor, a conspiracy among six South American countries to kidnap and assassinate political opponents. This trial, the first of its kind in Europe, focused on senior officials from Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina, resulting in harsher sentences than they might have received in their home countries.

Malatto’s trial is scheduled to commence on 22 April, with the potential for life imprisonment if convicted. Victims’ relatives, like Viviana Arias, hope for a severe prison sentence, seeking justice that has been denied to their family members for decades.

Malatto’s lawyer, Augusto Sinagra, challenges the value of testimonies obtained during the preliminary investigation, insisting that accusers must be physically present at the trial to face defence questions. Sinagra conveyed the confidence of the Argentine army officer in his innocence, approaching the situation with absolute serenity amid the legal proceedings.