By MICHAEL WARREN, Associated Press Dec. 22, 2010
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Former dictator Jorge Videla was sentenced to
life in prison Wednesday for the torture and murder of 31 prisoners, most
of whom who were "shot while trying to escape" in the months after his
The conviction was Videla's first in 25 years for crimes against humanity,
thrilling relatives who packed the courtroom, holding up grainy
black-and-white pictures of the victims and shouting "murderers" at the
defendants. Most of the two-dozen former military and police officials who
were tried with Videla also received life sentences.
Videla, who led the military coup that installed Argentina's 1976-1983
dictatorship, is considered the architect of a dirty war that eliminated
thousands of people in a crackdown on armed leftist guerrillas and their
The judges found Videla "criminally responsible" for the deaths of the
prisoners, who were transferred from civilian jail cells to a clandestine
prison where they were repeatedly tortured under interrogation before
Videla told the court that Argentine society demanded the crackdown to
prevent a Marxist revolution and complained that "terrorists" now run the
Videla must serve his sentence in a civilian prison, the judges decided,
ruling out the privileges he enjoyed after he was first convicted of
crimes against humanity in 1985, as Argentina was struggling to return to
democracy. Videla served just five years of a life sentence in a military
prison before former President Carlos Menem granted him and other junta
After a concerted campaign to reform a judicial system packed with
dictatorship-era judges, the Supreme Court overturned those amnesties in
2007, and current President Cristina Fernandez has encouraged a wave of
new trials of former military and police figures involved in the
clandestine torture centers where thousands of the regime's opponents
This was the first of dozens of trials coming up for Videla, now 85.
Some of his co-defendants received lesser terms, and seven minor
defendants whose cases were joined to Videla's were found not guilty.
It was the fifth life sentence for former Gen. Luciano Benjamin Menendez,
who directed the early war against leftist subversives across much of
The 31 victims in this case — many of them university students with links
to armed leftist revolutionary movements — were taken to a clandestine
center in Cordoba and tortured with methods including electric shock,
rape, simulated asphyxiation with water and nylon bags and mock
executions. They were left naked in cold wet cells through the winter, and
were told their families would be killed if they didn't confess, survivors
Menendez told the court that it is historically revisionist to present
armed leftist groups 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."
Videla and Menendez accepted responsibility for the crackdown but claimed
they had to act as they did to prevent what they considered would be a
greater tragedy — the transformation of Argentina from a conservative
Christian society to a Marxist state.
Ricardo Alfonsin — son of the late President Raul Alfonsin, who helped put
Videla and other junta leaders on trial 25 years ago and created the
"Never Again" commission that documented thousands of crimes against
humanity — said such arguments are meaningless coming from men who lack
all moral authority.
Videla "represents the most absolute evil," Alfonsin told 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."
About 13,000 people were killed or disappeared during the dirty war,
according to a government count. Human rights group estimate the figure is
Seeking justice "is the only thing we have left in life. Our children
haven't appeared — we don't know anything about them," said Nair Amuedo of
the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group. "At least these
murderers were condemned for who they are."
(This version CORRECTS that Ricardo Alfonsin's father created "Never
Again," which documented crimes against humanity.)