Writer Ernesto Sabato, who led probe of crimes committed by Argentina's dictatorship, dies at 99
Sabato died Saturday of complications of bronchitis at his home near Buenos Aires, his friend and collaborator Elvira Gonzalez Fraga told Radio Mitre.
He was a widely admired intellectual and author of works such as "On Heroes and Tombs" when President Raul Alfonsin asked him to lead an investigation into crimes committed under the soldiers who led Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
Sabato called his work of helping to document the murders, tortures and illegal arrests committed by a regime he had initially supported a "descent into hell." The commission's report, "Never Again," served as the basis for prosecuting key figures in the dictatorship after the return to civilian rule.
Official and independent agencies estimate that 12,000 to 30,000 people were killed by government forces seeking to wipe out leftists.
Like many Argentines, Sabato initially welcomed the coup that overthrew President Isabel Peron after mounting economic problems, social turmoil and clashes with leftist guerrillas who carried out kidnappings and killings.
He joined other writers in a meeting with dictator Jorge Rafael Videla shortly after the takeover and described him as "a cultured man, modest and intelligent."
Even as government repression reached its height in 1978, Sabato said in an interview that "many things have improved: the armed terrorist bands have been put, in large part, under control." He grew critical by 1979, denouncing censorship.
Sabato was born June 24, 1911, in the city of Rojas near Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires.
While studying physics, he joined the Communist Party's youth wing and rose to become its secretary in the early 1930s, but broke with the party in 1934 over purges by Soviet leader Josef Stalin. It was the first of "the three fundamental crises of my life."
Returning to his studies, he earned a doctorate in physics and went to Paris to work on atomic radiation at the Joliot-Curie laboratories, where he said he suffered a second personal crisis.
"In Paris, I assisted in breaking the uranium atom, which was being disputed by three laboratories: the 'race' was won by a German. It thought it was the beginning of the apocalypse."
The third crisis emerged from his friendship with surrealist artists such as Andre Breton, Wilfredo Lam and Roberto Matta, and his growing disenchantment with what he saw as the misuse of science. He turned to writing.
Sabato published his first book, "One and the Universe," in 1945 and his first, brief novel, "The Tunnel," which was praised by Thomas Mann and also by Albert Camus, who had it translated into French.
"The Angel of Darkness" -- "Abaddon el Exterminador" in the original Spanish -- was honored as the best foreign book of the year by the French book industry in 1976.
Sabato received the French Legion of Honor, the Medici Prize of Italy and Spain's Cervantes Prize, the most respected award in Spanish letters.
-- Associated Press
Photo: Ernesto Sabato in 1997.