BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla was convicted and sentenced to 50 years yesterday for executing a systematic plan to steal babies from prisoners who were kidnapped, tortured and killed during the military junta's war on leftist dissenters three decades ago.
The baby thefts set Argentina's 1976-1983 military junta apart from all the others that ruled in Latin America at the time. Videla and the rest of the junta were determined to remove any trace of the armed leftist guerrilla movement that they felt threatened the country's future.
The "dirty war" eventually claimed 13,000 victims, according to official records. Many of them were pregnant women who gave birth in clandestine maternity wards.
Argentina's last dictator, Reynaldo Bignone, also was convicted and received a 15-year sentence.
Nine others, mostly former military and police officials, also were accused in the trial, which focused on 34 of the baby thefts. Seven were convicted and two were found not guilty.
Witnesses included leaders of the human rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and former US diplomat Elliot Abrams, who testified from Washington that he secretly urged Bignone to 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 in his testimony 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 such effort at reconciliation was made. Instead, Bignone ordered the military to destroy evidence of the "dirty war" activities.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo group has since used DNA evidence to help 106 people who were stolen from prisoners as babies recover their true identities. Many of them were raised by military officials or their allies.
Videla, 86, received the maximum sentence as the man criminally responsible for 20 of the thefts.
He and Bignone, 84, already are serving life sentences for other crimes against humanity. They are being kept behind bars despite an Argentine law that usually permits criminals over 70 to serve sentences at home.