Argentina rugby players sentenced in high-profile beating death

The death of 18-year-old Fernando Baez Sosa has spurred debate over the role of race and class in Argentinian society.

Two rows of young men in white or light blue collared shirts sit with hands folded in a courtroom, as they hear the verdict surrounded by police and onlookers
Five of the eight defendants were handed life sentences on Monday in the 2020 beating death of Fernando Baez Sosa, while the other three each received 15 years in prison [Juan Mabromata/AFP]

Eight amateur rugby players have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for a 2020 murder that shocked Argentina, after an 18-year-old was beaten to death in what critics described as a racist and classist attack.

Five of the eight defendants – all between the ages of 21 and 23 – were handed sentences of life imprisonment on Monday in the death of Fernando Baez Sosa, a law student from a Paraguayan-born family. The other three each received 15 years for playing a “secondary” role in the incident.

The verdicts came after a four-week trial in a court in the town of Dolores, 220km (140 miles) south of the capital Buenos Aires, that dominated national headlines.

“Justice does not repair but alleviates,” the governor of Buenos Aires province, Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, wrote on Twitter as the sentences were announced. “I deeply hope this verdict brings you some comfort.”

Lawyers for the Baez Sosa family have said they are considering whether to appeal the 15-year sentences, which fell short of the maximum of life imprisonment they sought against all the defendants.

“When evaluating the sentences, I think this is not justice,” lawyer Fernando Burlando was quoted in Argentina’s La Nacion newspaper as saying. He called Monday’s ruling “the first step” in the family’s pursuit of justice.

Baez Sosa, the only child of a bricklayer and a caregiver born in Paraguay, was attacked on January 18, 2020, outside a nightclub in the coastal resort city of Villa Gesell, 376km (234 miles) south of the capital.

According to his parents, Graciela Sosa and Silvino Baez, Baez Sosa was taking a holiday before heading to university. But in the early hours of the morning, a fight erupted at Le Brique nightclub and several party-goers were removed from the venue.

Once outside, Baez Sosa allegedly was separated from his friends and surrounded by the group of amateur rugby players, who punched and kicked him.

Witnesses reported that his attackers called Baez Sosa a “sh**ty Black”, a term sometimes used to denigrate Indigenous people and immigrants from outside Argentina, a predominantly white country.

An estimated 97 percent of Argentinians identify as having European or mixed European and Indigenous heritage, with the country experiencing large waves of Italian and Spanish immigration well into the 20th century.

Only 2.4 percent of the population identifies as Indigenous, with 0.4 percent claiming African descent.

The fact that Baez Sosa’s attackers were all teammates at a small rugby club was also interpreted as indicative of their social standing. “The question of class plays an important role in this case,” sociologist Guillermo Levy told the Buenos Aires Times. “Most of the [rugby players] are from wealthy families in rural towns.”

Baez Sosa ultimately died of injuries sustained in the attack. One doctor who testified during the trial said that Baez Sosa suffered a “traumatic cardiac arrest” as a result of “multiple head injuries”.

Prosecutors in the case sought the maximum sentence against the defendants, arguing that the attack was premeditated. Burlando, the lawyer for the Baez Sosa family, highlighted that the rugby players were seen hugging and leaving to buy hamburgers after the beating.

“Killing made them hungry,” Burlando told the court.

But lawyers for the defence rejected the assertion that the attack was premeditated, pushing for a lower sentence. The defence also argued that the intense media scrutiny had exerted undue influence on the case.

During the trial, the rugby players expressed remorse for the attack and said they had no intention of killing Baez Sosa. Some even denied involvement in the fight.

Matias Benicelli, Enzo Comelli, Maximo Thomsen and brothers Ciro and Luciano Pertossi received the life sentences handed out on Monday. The brothers’ cousin, Lucas Pertossi, as well as Ayrton Viollaz and Blas Cinalli, received 15-year sentences.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies