Former Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videla was convicted and sentenced to 50 years last Thursday for setting up a program to steal babies from prisoners who were kidnapped, tortured and killed during the military junta's dirty war on leftist dissidents three decades ago. Argentina's last dictator, Reynaldo Bignone, was also convicted and sentenced to 15 years. Both men were already 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, 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 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 said, 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."
There were many people who were being murdered; it had to be planned"
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 US government also revealed little of what it knew as the junta's death squads were eliminating opponents.
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. Many were raised by military officials or their allies, who falsified their birth names, trying to remove any hint of their leftist origins.
The rights group estimates as many as 500 babies could have been stolen in all, but the destruction of documents and the passage of time make it impossible to know for sure. The trial featured testimony from grandmothers and other relatives who had searched for their missing family members and from people who learned as young adults that they were raised by the very people involved in the disappearance of their birth parents. 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, already have life sentences for other crimes against humanity, and are already serving time behind bars.
Seven others were convicted and sentenced by the three-judge panel on Thursday: former Adm. Antonio Vanek, 40 years; former marine Jorge "Tigre" Acosta, 30; former Gen. Santiago Omar Riveros, 20; former navy prefect Juan Antonio Azic, 14; and Jorge Magnacco, who witnesses said handled some of the births, 10.
Former Capt. Victor Gallo and his ex-wife Susana Colombo, were sentenced to 15 and five years in jail, respectively. Their adopted son, Francisco Madariaga, testified against them and said he hoped their sentences would set an example. According to Argentinean judicial procedure, the basis for the convictions and sentences won't be revealed until September 17, said the president of the judicial tribunal, María del Carmen Roqueta.