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Dictator convicted for 1970s murders, abuses, but not before giving his version of history

EYES INSIDELATIN AMERICA

Argentina's former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, the architect of the notorious Dirty War of the late 1970s, was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday for murder and human rights abuses, bringing some long-awaited sense of justice to the victims. But in a decades-long legal battle, Videla's own courtroom testimony earlier this week may revive debate about one of Argentina's darkest chapters.

The 85-year-old former army general was convicted by a court in Córdoba for the shooting deaths of 31 political prisoners, after the March 1976 coup that he and other officers staged against the government of María Estela (Isabel) Martínez de Perón. He was also found guilty of the kidnapping and torture of five policemen and the brother of one of the officers, as reported the Bueno Aires daily La Nación. Videla was ordered to serve the rest of his life inside a civilian prison.

Radio Nacional de Argentina reported details of sentencing of other defendants: 22 other former military officials, who were also on trial with Videla, were given various sentences, including 83-year-old former General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, who also got life. It was the sixth life sentence for Menéndez who has been convicted for other human rights crimes. Seven others were acquitted.

Outside the courthouse, the families of the murdered victims, and human rights activists, cheered when the three-judge panel handed down the verdicts. Many shouted "murderers' inside and outside the courtroom, reported another Buenos Aires daily Clarín.

"Today is a very special day. It has been a struggle of many years for a lot of people," 85-year-old Carmen Lorefice, who lost her son during the Dirty War, told the Spanish news agency EFE.

Videla was first brought to trial and convicted in 1985 but was freed five years later after then President Carlos Menem granted amnesty to him and other military rulers. In 2005, the Supreme Court declared the amnesty unconstitutional and opened the way for Videla to be retried. He has been charged with various counts but this was his first conviction since the top court's ruling five years ago.

The judges ruled that Videla was the mastermind behind the Dirty War, which lasted during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. On Tuesday, Videla, articulate and appearing in good health, delivered a lengthy statement telling the court that the current Peronist government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has promoted "a distorted view of reality."

"The enemies of yesterday are in power," he said, as quoted by La Nación. "Today they govern the country and pretend to be champions of human rights."

Videla said that it was former President Isabel Perón, who assumed office following her husband's death in July 1974, who signed a decree months before her government fell approving the military action against the Montoneros and the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) urban guerrilla groups that were terrorizing the country. "It was an internal war that was started by terrorist organizations against the republic. I refuse to call it a Dirty War, but prefer to call it instead a fair or even an unfair war," he said.

According to human rights organizations, some 30,000 people were murdered or forced to "disappear" during this period. Videla also said that the majority of Argentineans supported the military overthrow and subsequent actions, and alleged that then-leader of the opposition Radical Civic Union (URC) Party Ricardo Balbín asked him at meeting in early 1976 to launch the coup as soon as he could to "prevent the republic from suffering long agony."


Ricardo Alfonsín, a URC contender for his party's presidential nomination, strongly condemned Videla's comments. "Anyone who is capable of doing what he did is capable of lying and discrediting someone who is no longer here to defend himself," Alfonsín told La Nación. His father, the late former President Raúl Alfonsín of the URC, was the man who first brought Videla and other junta leaders to trial in 1985.

Martin Delfín

Worldcrunch

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