More than three decades after the crimes were committed and 16 years after they were denounced, a page has been turned in Argentina. General Jorge Rafael Videla was found, on July 6, responsible for the “extraction, retention and hiding of minors and suppression of their identity, in 20 cases.”
By Santiago O'Donnell, Buenos Aries
In other words, the leader of the military regime (1976-1983) under which around 15,000 guerrillas and political opponents disappeared in the 1970s, has been convicted of ordering the kidnapping of babies who were born in captivity, stripped of their identity and given up for adoption during his dictatorship.
In a courtroom crowded with relatives of the victims in downtown Buenos Aires, Federal Tribunal 6 sentenced Videla to 50 years in jail, together with a group of former military officials who served under him, who were given sentences ranging from 40 to 5 years in prison.
In total, more than 430 babies and young children of the disappeared were kidnapped during the dictatorship and sent with new identities to families related to the military. But the plaintiff, a victims’ NGO, Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, only presented 20 cases to expedite the proceedings in a trial that began 15 months ago.
The twenty young men and women who testified at the trial were born in captivity and recovered their identities thanks to the Grandmothers’ genetic bank and the findings of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, an NGO that has worked for decades identifying the remains of the disappeared. Victoria Montenegro, a witness who recovered her identity in 2001, said she was satisfied with the outcome of the trial. “It´s about time we start calling things by their name. The dictatorship had a systematic plan to steal babies. This trial ends a struggle of many years for the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo,” she declared.
During the trial, prosecutor Martin Niklison was able to prove that in the notorious detention centre, the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), from where more than 3,000 prisoners disappeared, had a maternity ward where dozens of clandestine births were carried out, the mothers assassinated hours later and the babies sent to be raised away from their “subversive” relatives.
In addition to Videla and his chief of staff, former general Reynaldo Bignone, who received a 15-year sentence, the federal tribunal also condemned former ESMA directors Jorge “the Tiger” Acosta and Osvaldo Vañek to 30 and 40 years in prison. Navy physician José Luis Magnasco received a 15-year sentence. Several former Army and Navy intelligence officers were also convicted.
Videla, who is already serving two life sentences in the military jail at Campo de Mayo for his role in the disappearances during the dictatorship, denied during the trial and in a recent interview with a Spanish magazine that he ordered the baby kidnappings, claiming they were committed by rogue elements in the military. However, he did admit to his decision to “get rid of six to seven thousand people” in the so-called dirty war of the 1970s.
Last week´s court decision was hailed as historic by Argentine human rights organisations. “In 1996 six of us filed this lawsuit with the idea that the world had to know that there was a systematic plan to steal our grandchildren. After so many years we have accomplished that,” said Rosa Roisinblit, vice president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. “This makes us better men and women and makes this a better country. Its makes us feel proud of a justice system that listened to the victims, it makes us feel proud to be able to exhibit this accomplishment to the international community, especially those countries that avoid condemning state terrorism,” said Martin Fresenda, who was born in captivity and recovered his identity. He is current Secretary of Human Rights in the Argentine government.
Videla, 87, was Argentina’s de facto president between 1976 and 1981. At the sentencing hearing he wore a blue suit, white shirt and black tie and remained silent. He stared at judge María del Carmen Roqueta, the tribunal president, as she read the sentence. Then he stood up gingerly, held his arms forward to be handcuffed and was led back to his cell.