Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla was convicted and sentenced to 50 years on 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, was also convicted and received 15 years. Both men were already 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 to 1983 regime apart from all the other juntas that ruled in Latin America at the time.
Videla and 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” 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, were also 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 a 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 Bignone to reveal the stolen babies’ identities as a way to smooth Argentina’s return to democracy.
“We knew that it was not 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 Grandmothers group has since used DNA evidence to help 106 people who were stolen from prisoners as babies recover their true identities and 26 of those cases were part of the trial.
Many were raised by military officials or their allies, who falsified their birth names, trying to remove any hint of their leftist origins.
The group estimates as many as 500 babies could have been stolen in all, but the destruction of documents and passage of time make it impossible to know for sure.
Prosecutors had asked for 50 years for Videla and four others.
Videla, 86, received the -maximum sentence as the man criminally responsible for 20 of the thefts. He and Bignone, 84, are already -serving life sentences for other crimes against humanity and are behind bars despite an Argentine law that usually permits criminals over 70 to stay at home.