By DEBORA REY, Associated Press July 2, 2010
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, one of
South America's bloodiest military rulers, returns to court as a defendant
on Friday for the first time since he was convicted of crimes against
humanity 25 years ago.
Videla, 84, is being tried for the murders of 31 political prisoners who
were pulled from their jail cells shortly after his 1976 military coup
and, according to the official story, shot while trying to escape.
Considered the architect of Argentina's Dirty War that resulted in as many
as 30,000 deaths during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, Videla was sentenced
to life in prison for torture, murder and other crimes in 1985, then
pardoned five years later by then-President Carlos Menem. The Supreme
Court struck down the pardon in 2007, restoring his convictions, and since
then dozens of other cases have accumulated against Videla.
The case in Cordoba is the first to reach trial; at least two more are
scheduled to start this year, including one involving dozens of babies
stolen from prisoners who were later killed.
What distinguishes the Cordoba case from others is that its victims had
been jailed under the civilian government before the coup, and were
executed before they could stand trial, attorney Miguel Ceballos said.
Ceballos is representing the families of victims, including his own
father: Miguel Angel Ceballos was active in the People's Revolutionary
Army, a leftist guerrilla group, when he was arrested in 1974 for
violating anti-subversion laws.
"They shot him in a ravine a few blocks from the jail along with other
prisoners," Ceballos said. "When they came looking for my father at the
prison, he knew he would be killed. He said goodbye to his friends and
left a photo of our family so they could tell us what had happened."
The body was delivered to the family shortly thereafter. The other
victims, lefists between 21 and 45 years old, were killed in similar
fashion — "shot while trying to escape" — in the months after the coup on
March 24, 1976.
Videla and military leaders formed a junta that eliminated political
parties, took over unions, censored the media and tortured and killed
thousands of "subversives" — actions the junta justified as necessary to
Videla's fellow defendants include former army Gen. Luciano Benjamin
Menendez, who led the campaign against subversives in a wide swath of
Argentina, 22 other retired military and police officials and some
Ceballos said Videla, as army commander and president of the junta, was
the one who gave the order to eliminate all leftist activists.
"I knew everything that happened. I was above everyone," Videla himself
told the authors of his 2001 biography, "The Dictator."
At the height of his power, Videla dismissed concerns about the thousands
of people who had vanished. "The disappeared do not exist," he said in a
1977 news conference in Venezuela.
And yet while Videla presided over the opening ceremonies of the 1978
World Cup at a stadium in Buenos Aires, men under his command were
torturing prisoners several blocks away inside a secret detention center.
Videla — who also faces charges in Italy, Spain, France and Germany
involving the deaths of their citizens in Argentina — was able to stay in
military detention or under house arrest for many years. Now, despite his
advanced age, he's being held in a common cell.
Videla and his lawyers have not commented on the Cordoba case. In the
past, however, Videla has said Argentina was at war back then and military
personnel should not be judged for the deaths. Additionally, he said he
does not recognize civilian justice and would only accept being tried in a
With Videla already serving a life sentence, any new convictions would not
mean any more jail time for the former dictator — but could bring some
measure of relief to the families of the dead.
"This trial has been a long time coming, but there has to be closure. I
don't believe anyone should take the law into their own hands," Ceballos
said. "He is having the trial he denied my father."