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Alfredo Astiz, 'Angel Of Death' In Argentina's Dirty War, Claims Persecution

10/14/11 04:56 PM ET EDT  AP

Alfredo Astiz, right, former navy spy known during Argentina's dictatorship as the blond "Angel of Death," and former navy officer Julio Cesar Coronel attend their trial in Buenos Aires, Friday, Dec. 11, 2009. (AP Photo/Rolando Andrade Stracuzzi)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — An Argentine navy spy nicknamed "the Angel of Death" described himself Friday as a martyr and a victim of political persecution.

Former Capt. Alfredo Astiz is on trial charged with participating in the disappearance, torture and murder of two French nuns, a journalist and three founders of a human rights group that he infiltrated while spying for the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

Astiz's seemingly ruthless betrayal of mothers who challenged the junta to account for their missing children was seen as so egregious by Argentines that he became a symbol of the junta's "dirty war" against leftist guerrillas and political opponents.

His defense is that he was a military officer following legal orders. Using his opportunity to make a final statement after the lawyers made their closing arguments, he claimed he is being persecuted by a government that "won't forgive us for having successfully battled subversion."

Astiz, 59, has been on trial with 17 other former military and police officials for nearly a year for crimes against humanity allegedly committed inside the Navy Mechanics School, one of the junta's principal centers for detention and torture used to crush the threat of armed revolution.

About 5,000 detainees passed through the site. Fewer than half survived.

The leafy former military campus, now home to a museum dedicated to preserving evidence of crimes against humanity, also housed a maternity ward where pregnant detainees were held until they gave birth and then were made to "disappear". A separate trial alleging that systematic baby thefts were part of the junta's anti-subversion strategy is under way in another courtroom.

In all, hundreds of former military and police officials are on trial around Argentina as the country's civilian justice system prosecutes alleged crimes from the "dirty war," which killed 13,000 junta opponents three decades ago, according to official records.

Astiz accused President Cristina Fernandez of promoting unjust and illegitimate prosecutions for her own political gain. Her late husband and predecessor, President Nestor Kirchner, encouraged the trials after Argentina's congress and Supreme Court removed amnesties that had protected junta veterans.

"This government doesn't hesitate in its revenge against we people who combatted terrorism. It seeks revenge through martyrdom and death in prison," Astiz said.

Among other charges, Astiz is accused of the kidnapping and disappearance of French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, who were helping mothers organize a campaign to find children swept up by the junta. Astiz won their confidence by claiming he was searching for a missing brother.

Astiz contended that only a military tribunal is capable of judging situations of war. He wrapped up his defense by handing a copy of Argentina's constitution to the judges and asking that they share it with the Supreme Court.

The verdicts and sentences could be announced as early as next week. Astiz and most of the 17 co-defendents face life in prison if convicted.

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Filed by Clare Richardson  |