The convictions were the first in which representatives of a multinational firm were found culpable in a human rights trial in Argentina.
Activists hailed the sentences as a major step toward making amends for the cooperation that several businesses provided to the brutal junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Union leaders were among the tens of thousands of people sent to clandestine detention centers where suspected dissidents were arbitrarily detained, tortured and often killed.
Relatives of the 24 victims in the Ford case burst into applause in the courtroom as a judge read the verdicts.
A three-judge panel sentenced Pedro Müller, 87, then a manufacturing director at a Ford factory in Buenos Aires province, to 10 years, and Héctor Francisco Sibilla, 92, then the security manager at the plant, to 12 years for assisting in the kidnapping and torture of their colleagues.
The two executives “allowed a detention center 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.
The court also sentenced Santiago Omar Riveros, a former head of the army’s fourth battalion, to 15 years in prison. All the sentences can be appealed.
“We were able to show during the trial that the company benefited economically during the period and how it used the repressive arm of the dictatorship to get rid of people that bothered them,” said Marcelo García Berro, the prosecutor.
Of the 24 workers whose cases are detailed in the case, 17 were detained in their workplace and 11 are alive today.
“These weren’t people tied to the subversion or anything of the sort. They participated in the unions,” García Berro said.
Although the prosecution had requested sentences of 25 years, the victims’ lawyers said they were satisfied.
“The sentencing of two company executives leaves no doubt that Ford was directly involved in committing crimes against humanity against workers, and that is historic,” said Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, one of the lawyers.
Another one of the victims’ lawyers, Tomás Ojea Quintana, told Reuters that a lawsuit against the automaker may be filed in a federal court in the United States.
“It is clear that Ford Motor Co. had control of the Argentinian subsidiary during the ‘70s,” said Ojea Quintana. “Therefore, there is a direct responsibility of Ford Motor Co. and that might give us the possibility to bring the case to the U.S. courts.”
Ford said in a statement the company was “aware of the verdict about the supposed participation of ex-employees of the firm in events related to human rights in the ‘70s.” The company added that it “always had an open and collaborative attitude with judicial authorities supplying all the available information.”
Officials at Ford declined to comment further, noting that the sentences can still be appealed.
Argentina has done far more than its neighbors to punish former military officers and their accomplices for crimes committed during the dictatorships that became the norm in much of the region in that period.
As of September, Argentine courts had convicted 862 people among the more than 3,020 individuals charged for human rights abuses, according to the attorney general’s office. The vast majority of those convictions involved former military officers. Relatively few civilians who were complicit in grave abuses have been convicted.
Experts said Tuesday’s verdict marked a turning point because it made a clear link between the dictatorship and the persecution of union activists.
“This is the first time that Argentina convicts business executives for crimes against humanity relating to union activism,” said Victoria Basualdo, a historian who served as an expert witness in the case.
Many businesses saw the dictatorship “as the opportunity to resolve labor conflicts in a repressive manner and increase profits,” the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights group in Argentina said in a statement. By giving material assistance to the dictatorship, “they became one more link in the structure of state terrorism.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.