September 23, 2009 / 2:23 PM / 10 years ago

Dutch pilot held over Argentine "death flights"

MADRID/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - A Dutch-Argentine airline pilot accused of running “death flights” to dump political prisoners at sea under Argentina’s military government 30 years ago was arrested in Spain, Spanish officials said on Wednesday.

Pilot Julio Alberto Poch is seen in this undated file photo released by the Spanish Police September 23, 2009. REUTERS/Spain Interior Ministry/Handout

Argentina issued an international arrest warrant last year for Julio Alberto Poch after an Argentine judge traveled to Europe and interviewed colleagues who said he had boasted about disposing of drugged prisoners into the River Plate or the ocean.

Poch, 57, a retired Argentine navy lieutenant, was arrested on Tuesday at Valencia’s Manises Airport during a stopover as he flew a plane to Amsterdam. Poch works for Holland’s Transavia, an airline owned by Air France-KLM.

Argentina had asked that the Netherlands extradite Poch, but he was protected by his Dutch citizenship while in the Netherlands, Argentina’s Human Rights Secretariat said in a statement.

Spain arrested him on the international warrant and a justice system source in Buenos Aires, who asked not to be named, said Argentina will now request his extradition from Spain.

Poch is accused of being involved in the deaths or disappearance of hundreds of people held in the Naval Mechanics School, Argentina’s infamous political prison, the source said.

Prisoners at the school, known as the ESMA, were tortured and many were drugged and then put into helicopters or airplanes to be cast into the river or the sea while still alive.

“THEY WERE TERRORISTS”

An Argentine government report says more than 11,000 people died or disappeared during the so-called Dirty War, a crackdown on alleged leftists and other opponents of the military regime that ruled from 1976 to 1983.

Argentine Federal Judge Sergio Torres traveled to the Netherlands in December last year to gather testimony from work colleagues of Poch who said he confessed to them his involvement in the “death flights” and the way prisoners were thrown out of planes, the Human Rights Secretariat said.

“(Poch) told me how aboard his plane, people who were still alive were thrown off with the intent of executing them,” a pilot told Torres during an interview with the judge in the Netherlands, official Argentine news agency Telam reported.

Poch justified the killings by saying “they were terrorists,” according to the testimony cited by Telam.

Another pilot who worked with Poch said “his behavior was outrageous, he defended throwing people off planes into the ocean,” Telam said.

Poch has worked for Transavia since the 1980s when he fled Argentina to the Netherlands, where he lives with his family, Telam said.

In 2005 Argentina’s Supreme Court, at the urging of then-President Nestor Kirchner, struck down two amnesty laws that shielded hundreds of former officers from charges of human rights abuses during the dictatorship.

Courts have since issued a handful of severe prison sentences for members of the security forces — many now elderly — who were convicted of kidnapping, torturing or killing dissidents.

Additional reporting by Ben Berkowitz in Amsterdam, and by Luis Andres Henao and Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires; Editing by Xavier Briand

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