Some of the most notorious figures of Argentina’s “dirty war” were convicted on Thursday of kidnapping, torturing and murdering 22 people at the beginning of the 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship when the country cracked down on leftist dissent.
Family members of the victims cheered and hugged as a judge handed down the sentences for General Luciano Menendez and former police intelligence chief Roberto Albornoz: life in prison for crimes against humanity committed at a secret detention center in provincial Tucuman.
Two former police officers — brothers Luis Armando de Candido and Carlos Esteban de Candido — were sentenced to 18 years and three years, respectively.
Their victims included Diana Oesterheld, who was seven months pregnant when she disappeared. Her mother, Elsa Sanchez, said the sentences gave her a feeling of “enormous tranquility” after many years of anxiety.
“We didn’t have justice for so long,” said Sanchez, whose husband, political cartoonist Hector Oesterheld, and their other three daughters also were killed.
Sanchez, 85, said the verdict has given her the strength to continue searching for Diana’s child.
Many pregnant prisoners were killed after giving birth in prison, their babies adopted by people allied with the dictatorship.
The Tucuman trial riveted Argentina after a protected witness suddenly presented 259 pages of secret documents he smuggled from the detention center and hid in his floorboards for three decades.
The evidence included a list of 293 people detained by Albornoz, with notations indicating whether they would live or die.
The list provided many family members with the first information about the fate of their loved ones, more than 30 years after they were kidnapped.
The documents also include handwritten notes made during torture sessions, reports about spying efforts, the names of intelligence agents and the identities of bodies. Many bear the stamps and signatures of police and military agencies and officials.
After Argentina’s return to democracy, an official commission used missing-person complaints and survivors’ memories to determine that the junta killed about 13,000 people, though human rights groups believe as many as 30,000 died.
During the trial, Menendez justified his leadership of the military response to leftist guerrillas in 10 provinces across northern Argentina by saying they had to prevent a communist takeover.
“These were not peaceful citizens,” he said.
The other defendants said they were following orders.
In 2008, Menendez was convicted in Tucuman of the 1976 disappearance of Senator Guillermo Vargas.
Tucuman’s former de-facto governor, Antonio Bussi, also convicted in the Vargas case, was not included in this latest trial due to poor health.
About 20 dictatorship-era human rights cases are being tried this year in Argentina, and verdicts have been reached in 23 others since amnesty laws were overturned in 2005.
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