BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla was convicted and sentenced to 50 years Thursday for a systematic program to steal babies from prisoners who were kidnapped, tortured and killed during the military junta's war on leftist dissidents three decades ago.
Argentina's last dictator, Reynaldo Bignone, also was convicted and got 15 years. Both men already 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 jubilant crowd watched on a big screen and cheered each sentence.
The baby thefts set Argentina's 1976-1983 regime apart from all the other juntas that ruled in Latin America at the time. Videla other 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" eventually 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 U.S. diplomat Elliot Abrams. He was called to testify after a long-classified memo describing his secret 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.