Argentina convicts 2 dictators of stealing babies

Argentina convicts 2 dictators of stealing babies

 The conviction of two former dictators for the systematic stealing of babies from political prisoners 30 years ago is a big step in Argentina's effort to punish that era's human rights abuses, though certainly not the last.

Following yesterday's convictions of Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, at least 17 other major cases are before judges or are nearing trial.

Among them is a "mega-trial" involving the Navy Mechanics School, which became a feared torture centre as the 1976-1983 military junta kidnapped and killed 13,000 opponents while trying to annihilate an armed leftist uprising. That case involves 65 defendants, nearly 900 victims, more than 100 witnesses and about 60,000 pages of evidence.

A "Never Again" commission formed shortly after Argentina's democracy was restored in 1983 documented thousands of crimes against humanity during the military regime, but hardly any of the violators were prosecuted until the late Nestor Kirchner was elected president 20 years later.

Justice Minister Julio Alak said yesterday that Kirchner's wife and successor, President Cristina Fernandez, deserves credit for making the human rights cases a cornerstone of government.

"It's unthinkable that in a state of law, the murderers of the people could be in any place but prison," Alak said after the verdicts were read.

Videla, 86, was sentenced to 50 years in prison, while the 84-year-old Bignone got 15 years for their roles in the baby thefts. The prison time is symbolic, though, because both men have been behind bars for years following multiple convictions and life sentences for other crimes against humanity.

Seven of their co-defendants were also convicted on charges involving the theft of 34 babies, while two people were acquitted by a three-judge panel.

Despite the jailing of Videla and Bignone, most people who have been convicted of rights violations during the dictatorship remain free on appeal, and many others have yet to stand trial.

According to a March tally by Argentina's independent Centre for Legal and Social Studies, a total of 1,861 defendants have been named in cases of state terror, but verdicts were reached for only 17 percent of them with 92 per cent of them found guilty. Since the trials began in 2006, at least 65 have resulted in sentences, but only seven of these have exhausted an appeals process that takes more than two years on average.
Still, yesterday's verdicts were a cause for celebration outside the federal courthouse in Buenos Aires, where activists watched them being announced on a huge television screen.

"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.

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