Léonie Duquet (1916, Longemaison, Doubs, France – 1977, Argentina) was a French nun who was arrested in December 1977 in Buenos Aires, Argentina and "disappeared." She was believed killed by the military regime of Argentine President Jorge Rafael Videla during the Dirty War. Alice Domon, a French nun working with Duquet, disappeared a few days later. They had been working in poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in the 1970s and supported the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, founded in 1977. Despite repeated efforts by France to trace the sisters, the Argentine military dictatorship was unresponsive.
In 1990 a French court in Paris tried Argentine Captain Alfredo Astiz, known to have arrested Duquet and believed implicated in the "disappearance" of Domon, for kidnapping the two sisters. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia. In Argentina at the time, he and other military and security officers were shielded from prosecution by Pardon Laws passed in 1986 and 1987. These were repealed in 2003 and ruled unconstitutional in 2005, and the government re-opened prosecution of war crimes.
In July 2005 several bodies were found in a mass grave in General Lavalle Cemetery, 400 kilometers south of Buenos Aires. Forensic DNA testing in August identified one as Duquet's. DNA testing revealed that within the same grave were the remains of the three "disappeared" Argentine women, founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who had also been missing since December 1977. Domon has not been found. Since the confirmation of Duquet's murder, France has been seeking extradition of Astiz; in 2005 he was being detained in Argentina after being indicted on charges of kidnapping and torture.
Léonie Duquet was born in 1916 in Longemaison, Doubs, France, where she grew up in a Catholic family. Interested in service in the Church, she joined the Institute of Sisters in Foreign Missions Notre-Dame de la Motte as a novitiate. After taking vows as a nun, she traveled and worked as a missionary internationally.
Duquet and fellow nun Alice Domon were assigned to Argentina during the early 1970s. Duquet was dedicated to helping Argentina's poor and worked among them in Buenos Aires province as well as in the capital city. She lived and worked at the San Pablo de Ramos Mejia cathedral on the south side of the city.
She became involved with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement, which started in April 1977. The mothers wanted to publicize their "disappeared" children and force the government to tell them of their fates and locate them. The military dictatorship had a policy of suppressing political opposition by widespread state terrorism. Thousands of Argentine citizens who opposed the government had "disappeared", others were known to have been killed.
In December 1977, Duquet was arrested and kidnapped in the parish of San Pablo Ramos Majia by Marine Captain Alfredo Astiz. This was shortly after Astiz had led a police action at the Holy Cross Church in Buenos Aires against the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, where he had arranged the arrest of Azucena Villaflor and two other of the 13 founders of the group, together with a total of ten associates. Alice Domon was kidnapped soon after. Astiz became known as the "Blond Angel of Death," one of the most infamous torturers in Argentina.
The prisoners were taken to ESMA, where a secret detention and torture center had been set up. According to testimony of survivors, the sisters and other prisoners were held there about 10 days and severely tortured under interrogation. The sisters were forced to write and sign letters to the superior of their order, saying they had acted in opposition to the government of General Jorge Videla. They were photographed in front of a Montoneros banner, to appear as if they were with that guerrilla group. The photo was released to local and French press; the women showed evidence of physical torture. Soon after, all the group was "transferred out" of ESMA, which was understood to mean they were killed. (Testimony of Horacio Domingo Maggio, File #4450).(Testimony of Lisandro Raúl Cubas, File #6794).
Léonie Duquet is believed to have been killed by a military death squad under Astiz' command. As neither her nor Villaflor's bodies were found, some observers thought the women may have been among victims flown by plane and helicopter and thrown out while still alive over the ocean near Buenos Aires. In early 1978, unidentified bodies began to wash up on the beaches south of Buenos Aires.
The "disappearances" of Duquet and Domon, two French nationals, attracted international attention and outrage, with demands for a United Nations investigation of human rights abuses in the country. France demanded information of both the French nuns, but the Argentine government denied all responsibility for them.
Despite losing some of their founders, the Mothers of the Plaza continued marching, and within the year, hundreds of women and family friends joined them, demanding an accounting from the government. The weekly marches and annual anniversaries of resistance stood against the government's silence about the "disappeared".
Later trial and discovery
In 1990, Alfredo Astiz was tried and convicted in absentia of the kidnapping of the two sisters, Duquet and Domon, by a French court in Paris and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was not charged with murder because no bodies had been found for Duquet or Domon.
In July 2005, seven bodies were found in a mass grave near General Lavalle Cemetery, about 400 km south of Buenos Aires. Believing the remains were of people "disappeared" from 1976 to 1983, the democratic Argentine government ordered forensic DNA testing of the bodies. On August 28, 2005, one of the seven bodies was identified as that of Léonie Duquet. Villaflor and two other Mothers of the Plaza were also identified among them. Domon has not been found but is presumed dead.
By 2005, Astiz was being detained in Argentina at a naval facility on charges of kidnapping and torture. After passage in Argentina of the Pardon Laws in 1986 and 1987, he had been protected for a time from prosecution. He was dismissed from the military in 1998 for "making statements to the press defending his actions under the military dictatorship." In 2003 the Argentine Congress repealed the Pardon Laws, and in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled they were unconstitutional. The government had re-opened prosecution of war crimes committed during the dictatorship.
After identification of Duquet's remains, the French government was seeking extradition of Astiz to serve his sentence in France and to be tried for the murder of Duquet.
During the ESMA trial, Luis María Mendía testified in January 2007 before the Argentine tribunal that a French intelligence agent, Bertrand de Perseval, had participated in the abduction of Duquet and Domon. Perseval, who lives today in Thailand, has denied any links with the abduction of the nuns. He has admitted to being a former member of the Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS) operated by the French in Algeria during the civil war and said he went to Argentina after the March 1962 Évian Accords ended the Algerian War (1954–62).
French intelligence agents have long been suspected of having trained Argentine counterparts in "counter-insurgency" techniques (including the use of torture in investigations). Marie Monique Robin's TV documentary, The Death Squads - the French School (Les escadrons de la mort - l'école française, 2003), based on her book, documented that the French intelligence services had trained Argentine counterparts in counter-insurgency techniques.
During his testimony, Luis María Mendia referred to the film as evidence, and asked the Argentine Court require former French president Giscard d'Estaing, former French premier Messmer, former French ambassador to Buenos Aires François de la Gorce, and all officials in place in the French embassy in Buenos Aires between 1976 and 1983 to be summoned before the court for their part in the abuses. Besides this French connection, he said the former head of state Isabel Perón and former ministers Carlos Ruckauf and Antonio Cafiero, who signed the "anti-subversion decrees" before Videla's 1976 coup d'état, had set up the policy and mechanism for state terrorism.
ESMA survivor Graciela Dalo characterized Mendía's allegations as a tactic to justify his crimes as legitimate. Under the 1987 Obediencia Debida Act, passed under pressure by the military, lower-level military and security personnel could not be prosecuted for carrying out orders. Similarly, Mendía said he and others had obeyed Isabel Perón's "anti-subversion decrees" (giving them a formal appearance of legality, although torture was forbidden by the Argentine Constitution).
The 1986 and 1987 Pardon Laws had been repealed in 2003, and ruled unconstitutional by the Argentine Supreme Court in 2005. By the time of Mendía's trial, this legislation provided no protection to him and others indicted for crimes committed under the military dictatorship.
In 2012 an Argentinian prosecutor filed charges against Julio Poch, the Dutch-Argentinian pilot, for flying the helicopter that carried the bodies of Domon, Duquet and three other women to be dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
- Agence France-Presse, "Léonie Duquet, missionária francesa, vítima do anjo louro da morte" (Leonie Duquet, French missionary, victim of the 'Blond Angel of Death'")], Ultimo Noticias, 29 August 2005,(Portuguese), accessed 10 June 2013
- Capítulo II, Víctimas, E. Religiosos, Informe Nunca Más, CONADEP, 1985
- "Disparitions : un ancien agent français mis en cause", Le Figaro, 6 February 2007 (French)
- Impartí órdenes que fueron cumplidas, Página/12, February 2, 2007 (Spanish)
- "Argentine Denies Taking Part in Dirty War-Era “Death Flights”", Latin American Herald Tribune, 27 November 2012
- "Léonie Duquet, missionária francesa, vítima do anjo louro da morte", Noticias (Portuguese) (Use Google Translate to read article in English)