BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, June 30 -- A group of 300 relatives of Argentine servicemen killed during the 1982 South Atlantic War between Argentina and Britain over the disputed sovereignty of the Falkland Islands are filing a lawsuit against former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. They accuse the former prime minister of "crimes against peace".
On May 2, 1982, the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror fired two torpedoes that sunk the aging Argentine Navy ARA General Belgrano -- the former US Navy USS Phoenix, which had survived the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor . The attack sunk the vessel and took the lives of 323 crew members, many of whom were 18-year-old conscripts doing their military service.
Two Argentine lawyers representing the families will argue that by sinking the Belgrano Thatcher had "violated the right to life" of the Argentine servicemen.
The BBC reports that shadow defense secretary Iain Duncan Smith reacted by saying: "If the relatives feel such action is necessary that is a matter for them, but we must not forget that, at the time, Britain was at war with Argentina.
"The Belgrano was an enemy warship, posing a brave threat to British forces, and appropriate action was taken against it. Even the Argentine Defense Ministry, in a report in 1994, concluded that the Belgrano's fate was'a legal act of war'."
Aldershot Conservative MP Gerald Howarth condemned the legal action as "utterly preposterous and absurd".
At the time of the sinking, the British government had claimed that the Belgrano represented a major threat to the British Task Force then sailing toward the islands, which at the time where under Argentine control following a military invasion on April 2 that year.
Subsequent investigations carried out by British MP Tam Dalyell showed that the Belgrano was not within a British imposed 200 mile Total Exclusion Zone around the islands and was sailing away from the islands back to its home base in Argentina.
Dalyell also demonstrated that the Belgrano posed no immediate threat to the Task Force and went on to argue that Thatcher had ordered its sinking as a way of scuttling a Peruvian peace plan that was in the making at the time.
Since the end of the war, the sinking of the Belgrano has remained one of the most controversial events of the brief war and is still widely considered the worst episode of a conflict the cost the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British servicemen.
Over the years, the case of the Belgrano has gone to court on several occasions in Argentina until the Supreme Court ruled that "due to the magnitude of the events" Margaret Thatcher could not be charged with "murder in the national courts."
While it is not immediately clear what the lawyers seek to obtain with this case, there can be little doubt that the Belgrano remains a highly sensitive issue in Argentina. Several survivors of the sinking consulted by UPI expressed strong feelings about the presentation of this lawsuit.
"These lawyers are out to make a political statement and are playing with the real feelings of people who lost loved ones during the war," said one senior officer who served on the Belgrano at the time and asked not be named.
The former captain of the Belgrano at the time of the sinking, Captain Hector Bonzo, who was not available for comment, has spearheaded an organization representing the 770 survivors as well as the next of kin of the 323 servicemen who lost their lives when the cruiser sank.. Having written a book on the events surrounding the sinking, Bonzo has consistently refused to be dragged into debates about the political considerations of the events.
Almost two decades after the sinking, much has been written and said about the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Belgrano.
In Argentina today there is a widespread consensus that the decision to order the sinking of the Belgrano had been taken for political and not military reasons.
The option of launching an attack on Belgrano, which was being tailed by HMS Conqueror at the time, was put to Thatcher by the British Admiral of the Fleet, the late Sir Terence Lewin, as one of the possible military options available to the British War Cabinet.
Britain and Argentina reestablished full diplomatic links over a decade ago and today enjoy normal ties. However, the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano is an issue likely to linger on for many years to come. As one former crew member said, "Margaret Thatcher can never be forgiven for this crime. It not only cost the life of many of my colleagues, it also dishonors the long maritime tradition of the Royal Navy."
At the time of the sinking, the popular British press ran a series of unfortunate headlines that included the infamous "Gotcha" in reference to the Royal Navy catching the Argentine vessel. Following the investigations carried out by the press and Dalyell revealing the circumstances of the sinking, one paper ran the headline "Britain waives the rules" a play of words on the British patriotic song Rule Britannia, which includes the words "Britain rules the waves".