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'Wasn't just one or two children': Ex-Argentine dictators jailed for baby thefts

Enrique Marcarian / Reuters

Members of human rights groups and other organisation react after hearing the verdict in the trial of former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla and other military officers in Buenos Aires on Thursday.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Three key figures from Argentina's "Dirty War" got hefty jail terms for the systematic theft of babies from political prisoners during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, an Argentine court ruled on Thursday.

The missing children -- stolen from their parents and illegally adopted, often by military families --  are one of the most painful legacies of the crackdown on leftist dissent in which rights groups say up to 30,000 people were killed.

Just over 100 of the children have discovered their true identities, but many families are still searching more than three decades later. Activists say there could be several hundred more individuals who do not know they were taken as babies from their parents.

"This is what we were seeking. We never wanted revenge, we were never hateful, we didn't ask for anything more than justice and justice has been done," an elderly man who identified himself as Francisco Madariaga's grandfather told local television. 

More photos: Tears flow as 'stolen babies' trial comes to an end

The sentences in the case known as "The Systematic Plan" investigated the theft and illegal adoption of 34 of the stolen infants. 

The 11 defendants included former junta leaders Jorge Rafael Videla, 86, and Reynaldo Bignone, 84, and ex-navy officer Jorge Acosta, 71, -- known as The Tiger. They are already serving life sentences for previous human rights convictions. 

Argentine dictators go on trial for baby thefts

Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison as the architect of the plan, while Acosta got 30 years and Bignone got 15. The other defendants were also ordered to serve sentences of various lengths. 

Natacha Pisarenko / AP

Former dictators Jorge Rafael Videla, second from right, and Reynaldo Bignone, right, wait to listen the verdict of Argentina's historic stolen babies trial in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Thursday.

Videla, who is unrepentant about rights abuses committed by the state, described himself as a "political prisoner" during the trial and said any abductions that did take place were not part of a systematic plan. 

"The women giving birth, who I respect as mothers, were militants who were active in the machine of terror," the former dictator said in his closing remarks. "Many used their unborn children as human shields." 

The baby thefts set Argentina's 1976-1983 regime apart from all the other juntas that ruled in Latin America at the time. Videla other military and police officials were determined to remove any trace of the armed leftist guerrilla movement they said threatened the country's future.

"This is an historic day. Today legal justice has been made real — never again the justice of one's own hands, which the repressors were known for," prominent rights activist Tati Almeida said outside the courthouse, where a jubilant crowd watched on a big screen and cheered each sentence.

500 babies stolen?
Witnesses included former U.S. diplomat Elliot Abrams. He was called to testify after a long-classified memo describing his secret meeting with Argentina's ambassador was made public at the request of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group whose evidence-gathering efforts were key to the trial. 

Abrams testified from Washington that he secretly urged Bignone to reveal the stolen babies' identities as a way to smooth Argentina's return to democracy. 

Thirty years after the collapse of Argentina's brutal military dictatorship, Alfredo Astiz, the so-called "Blond Angel of Death" and 11 others have been jailed for human rights abuses. Europe's Channel 4's Jonathan Miller reports.

"We knew that it wasn't just one or two children," Abrams testified, suggesting that there must have been some sort of directive from a high level official — "a plan, because there were many people who were being murdered or jailed." 

No reconciliation effort was made. Instead, Bignone ordered the military to destroy evidence of "dirty war" activities, and the junta denied any knowledge of baby thefts, let alone responsibility for the disappearances of political prisoners. 

The U.S. government also revealed little of what it knew as the junta's death squads were eliminating opponents. 

The Grandmothers group has since used DNA evidence to help 106 people who were stolen from prisoners as babies recover their true identities, and 26 of these cases were part of this trial. Many were raised by military officials or their allies, who falsified their birth names, trying to remove any hint of their leftist origins. 

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The rights group estimates as many as 500 babies could have been stolen in all, but the destruction of documents and passage of time make it impossible to know for sure. 

The trial featured gut-wrenching testimony from grandmothers and other relatives who searched inconsolably for their missing relatives, and from people who learned as young adults that they were raised by the very people involved in the disappearance of their birth parents. 

Six others were convicted and sentenced by the three-judge panel on Thursday: former Adm. Antonio Vanek, 40 years; former Gen. Santiago Omar Riveros, 20; former navy prefect Juan Antonio Azic, 14; and Dr. Jorge Magnacco, who witnesses said handled some of the births, 10. 

Former Capt. Victor Gallo and his ex-wife Susana Colombo, were sentenced to 15 and five years in jail, respectively. Their adopted son, Francisco Madariaga, testified against them and said he hoped their sentences would set an example. 

Retired Adm. Ruben Omar Franco and a former intelligence agent, Eduardo Ruffo, were absolved. 

According to Argentine judicial procedure, the basis for the convictions and sentences won't be revealed until Sept. 17, said the president of the judicial tribunal, Maria del Carmen Roqueta. 

Reuters and The Associate Press contributed to this report. 

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