Argentina sentences former dictator to life in prison

Jorge Videla led military coup that installed 1976-1983 dictatorship, killing and torturing at least 31 prisoners


Associated Press
December 23, 2010 2:45AM (UTC)

Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday for the torture and murder of 31 prisoners in 1976. It was the first conviction for the military junta leader in 25 years of democracy.

Videla, who led the military coup that installed Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship, was considered the architect of a dirty war that eliminated 13,000 people in a crackdown on armed leftist guerrillas and their supporters, according to an official count.

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The 31 prisoners were pulled from civilian jail cells and "shot while trying to escape" as the military consolidated its power in the months after the coup.

Videla claimed Argentine society demanded the crackdown to prevent a Marxist revolution, and complained that "terrorists" now run the country.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla awaited a possible sentence of life in prison Wednesday after his first trial in 25 years for crimes against humanity.

Videla, who led the military coup that installed Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship, was considered the architect of a dirty war that eliminated 13,000 people in a crackdown on armed leftist guerrillas and their supporters, according to an official count.

Now on trial for the torture and murders of 31 prisoners who were pulled from civilian jail cells and "shot while trying to escape" after the coup, Videla claimed Argentine society demanded the crackdown, which he said prevented a Marxist revolution. He said "terrorists" now run the country.

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Such claims mean nothing because Videla lacks all moral authority, said Ricardo Alfonsin, whose late father, President Raul Alfonsin, helped put Videla and other junta leaders on trial 25 years ago as Argentina returned to democracy. The elder Alfonsin also created the "Never Again" commission that documented thousands of crimes against humanity during the dictatorship,

Videla "represents the most absolute evil," said Alfonsin, now himself a candidate for president in next year's elections, to Radio Continental on Wednesday. It was Videla, he said, who "ordered them to torture, who ordered them to rape, who ordered them to kill or who tolerated them doing all of these aberrant things" during the dictatorship.

President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner encouraged a wave of new proceedings against dictatorship-era authorities. This is the first of dozens of cases against Videla to reach trial since the Supreme Court in 2007 declared unconstitutional the amnesty that enabled him and other junta leaders to escape the life sentences they were given in 1985.

Videla, now 85, is among two dozen defendants -- most of them former military and police officials -- charged with torture, murder, and cover-ups in the 1976 deaths of the 31 political prisoners in provincial Cordoba. Prosecutors have sought life in prison for Videla and former Gen. Luciano Benjamin Menendez, who directed the early war against leftist subversives across much of northern Argentina.

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Menendez testified Wednesday that it is historically revisionist to present the military's targets as passive victims with no responsibility for criminal acts. The Montoneros and the People's Revolutionary Army were already committing violent acts before the coup, he reminded the judges.

"They were combatants who took on certain risks," Menendez said. "It's not a crime against humanity to fight an armed combatant."

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Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.


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