BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – 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.
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 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 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 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.”
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 these cases were part of this trial.
The rights 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.
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