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Alfredo Astiz, Blond 'Angel Of Death,' Goes On Trial In Argentina

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A former Argentine navy spy nicknamed the "Angel of Death" went on trial Friday for his alleged involvement in the disappearance and torture of dissidents during the country's military dictatorship.

Alfredo Astiz, 58, is accused of multiple crimes including the torture and murder of two French nuns, a journalist and three founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of parents who began gathering outside the presidential palace shortly after the 1976 military coup to demand answers about their children's whereabouts.

"We demand the worst possible sentence: life in prison," said Rodolfo Yanzon, a lawyer representing Victor Basterra, one of the few victims to survive his stay at Argentina's Navy Mechanics School, which was converted into a torture chamber during the 1976-83 dictatorship.

"This trial is a direct result of the effort and courage put forth by family members of the victims, human rights organizations and the Argentine citizens who wanted to see these people held accountable for their actions," added Plaza de Mayo member Nora de Cortinas. "We are eager to finally see these sentences carried out."

Upon entering the court room, Astiz – known as the blond "Angel of Death" for his choirboy looks and reputed ruthlessness – raised his head and smiled at a group of sympathizers.

Astiz's lawyer says that as a uniformed member of the military, he was following orders to protect the nation from extremist violence.

"This is a circus," said supporter Cecilia Pardo. "Equality does not exist in the eyes of the Argentine legal system. The terrorists that run this country should be on the stand with them."

Eighteen other ex-military officials are being tried simultaneously with Astiz for their alleged involvement in crimes committed during the dictatorship.

A total of 358 suspects are awaiting trial for dirty-war offenses, according to the Argentine Center for Legal and Social Studies.

Official records say the dictatorship killed 13,000 people. Human rights groups say the true toll was 30,000.