Ex-dictator Jorge Rafael Videla pays for lives he stole

Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for a systematic programme to steal babies from prisoners who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered during the military junta’s war on leftist dissidents three decades ago.

Argentina’s last dictator, Reynaldo Bignone, was also convicted on Thursday and sentenced to 15 years. Both were in prison for other human rights abuses.

“This is an historic day. Today legal justice has been made real – never again the justice of one’s own hands, which the repressors were known for,” prominent rights activist Tati Almeida said outside the courthouse, where a crowd watched on a big screen and cheered each sentence.

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The baby thefts set Argentina’s 1976-1983 regime apart from all the other juntas that ruled in Latin America at the time. Videla and military and police officials were determined to remove any trace of the armed leftist guerrilla movement they said threatened the country’s future.

The “dirty war” claimed 13,000 victims, according to official records. Many were pregnant women who were “disappeared” shortly after giving birth in clandestine maternity wards.

Videla denied in his testimony that there was any systematic plan to remove the babies, and said prisoners used their unborn children as “human shields” in their fight against the state.

Nine others, mostly former military and police officials, also were accused in the trial, which focused on 34 baby thefts. Seven were convicted and two were found not guilty.

Witnesses included former US diplomat Elliot Abrams. He was called to testify after a long-classified memo describing his meeting with Argentina’s ambassador was made public at the request of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group whose evidence-gathering efforts were key to the trial. Abrams testified from Washington that he secretly urged that Bignone reveal the stolen babies’ identities as a way to smooth Argentina’s return to democracy.

“We knew that it wasn’t just one or two children,” Abrams testified, suggesting that there must have been some sort of directive from a high level official – “a plan, because there were many people who were being murdered or jailed.”

No reconciliation effort was made. Instead, Bignone ordered the military to destroy evidence of “dirty war” activities, and the junta denied any knowledge of baby thefts, let alone responsibility for the disappearances of political prisoners.

The trial featured emotional testimony from grandmothers and other family who searched inconsolably for their missing relatives, and from people who learned as young adults that they were raised by the very people involved in the disappearance of their birth parents.

Prosecutors had asked for 50 years for Videla and four others. He and Bignone, 84, already have life sentences for other crimes against humanity, and are serving time in prison despite an Argentine law that usually permits criminals over 70 to stay at home.

Seven others were convicted and sentenced by the three-judge panel: former admiral Antonio Vanek, 40 years; former marine Jorge “Tigre” Acosta, 30 years; former general Santiago Omar Riveros, 20 years; former navy prefect Juan Antonio Azic, 14 years, and Dr Jorge Magnacco, who witnesses said handled some of the births, 10 years.