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Ex-Military Officers Convicted of Human Rights Crimes During Argentina Dictatorship

A landmark human rights trial concluded Thursday in an Argentine federal court with the convictions of 38 former military officials for their roles in kidnapping, torturing and killing several hundred victims during a period of military dictatorship four decades ago.

Twenty-eight of the defendants, including a former general, were sentenced to life in prison, and 10 others received sentences of between two and a half and 21 years. Five defendants were acquitted.

Thousands of people who had gathered outside the packed courthouse in Córdoba, Argentina's second-biggest city, celebrated the convictions, holding aloft sepia-toned images of the victims.

The trial grouped together about 20 cases from torture centers on Córdoba, where the atrocities took place. The most infamous one was known as La Perla. The combined cases were an important part of broader efforts to expedite the laborious task of prosecutors and human rights organizations working to bring to justice brutal crimes committed by the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

In neighboring countries, efforts to bring South America's dictatorship-era crimes before the courts have faltered. But over the past decade, Argentina has been viewed by human rights groups as a beacon of progress, with scores of trials in which more than 600 people have been convicted so far.

The country has even pursued justice beyond its borders with a trial that concluded this year.

Thursday's verdict was widely anticipated because the trial was one of the most extensive, involving 716 victims and testimony from hundreds of witnesses over nearly four years. It was also groundbreaking, prosecutors said, because it was the first time they had progressed in Córdoba with cases involving death squads that operated before the military took power in the 1976 coup. In other corners of Argentina, cases dealing with crimes committed before the coup had been tried.

While human rights defenders have urged the courts to accelerate trials, several defendants died during the process. One committed suicide.

One case that stood out involved Sonia Torres, 86, whose grandchild was stolen by former military officials after her daughter was kidnapped and gave birth in captivity. "Half of my task is completed," she told the local news media after the trial, referring to the convictions. "Now, I have to find my grandchild."

An estimated 500 babies born in captivity or kidnapped with their parents were raised by families close to the military. A prominent human rights organization has so far helped 120 of those people, now adults, to discover their true identity, reuniting them with their biological relatives.

Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, 89, a former army general who is already serving life sentences for human rights violations, was convicted in the case related to Ms. Torres and of scores of other crimes. Other high-profile defendants included Héctor Pedro Vergez, 73, a former paramilitary commander who was also previously convicted, and Ernesto Guillermo Barreiro, 68, a former lieutenant. All three men were given life sentences.

Another so-called megatrial like the one concluded Thursday in Córdoba is continuing in Buenos Aires and includes a similar number of victims and defendants.

Human rights organizations estimate that 30,000 guerrillas and people said to have links to leftist groups or ideologies were killed or "disappeared" — kidnapped and murdered without their whereabouts ever being revealed — by the dictatorship. Others say that the number is lower.

Because of recent ambiguous comments by Argentine officials, worries persist among some Argentines that the new government of President Mauricio Macri will not vigorously support the judiciary's investigation and prosecution of the dictatorship-era crimes. Mr. Macri has previously sought to allay those concerns.

[Source: By Jonathan Gilbert, International New York Times, Bs As, 25Aug16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 31Aug16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.