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.
"This is an historic day. Today legal justice has been made real – never again the justice of one's own hands, which the repressors were known for," prominent rights activist Tati Almeida said outside the courthouse, where a jubilant crowd watched on a big screen and cheered each sentence.
The baby thefts set Argentina's 1976-1983 regime apart from all the other juntas that ruled in Latin America at the time. Videla 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."
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 U.S. 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 passage of time make it impossible to know for sure.
The trial featured gut-wrenching testimony from grandmothers and other relatives who searched inconsolably for their missing relatives, 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. Almeida, the rights activist, said that "in some cases we would have preferred longer sentences, but since they're such old men now, it's almost like a perpetual sentence."
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 serving time behind bars despite an Argentine law that usually permits criminals over 70 to stay at home.
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 Dr. 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.
Retired Adm. Ruben Omar Franco and a former intelligence agent, Eduardo Ruffo, were absolved.
According to Argentine judicial procedure, the basis for the convictions and sentences won't be revealed until Sept. 17, said the president of the judicial tribunal, Maria del Carmen Roqueta.