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Argentina: Former dictator gets life in prison

December 22, 2010 |  4:37 pm

Jorge videla court reuters

A former Argentine military dictator was sentenced Wednesday to life in a "common prison" for the torture and killing of 31 dissidents during the nation's so-called Dirty War in the 1970s and '80s.

The sentencing of Jorge Videla, center in the photo above, signals one of the harshest finishes for leaders from a period in which military juntas seized control of several Latin American nations -- often with U.S. aid -- in attempts to suppress rising leftist or Marxist threats to power.

Tens of thousands were killed or "disappeared" in Argentina after the coup against Isabel Martinez de Peron in 1976.

Other former officials from the military junta, including former Gen. Luciano Menendez, were also sentenced Wednesday in a federal courtroom in the city of Corboda. The men had defended their actions as measures taken against "terrorists" and "armed combatants" threatening Argentina's government. Three decades later, it is normal for Argentine news reports to refer to charges against former junta members as examples of "state terrorism" (link in Spanish).

News outlets reported "cheers and crying" outside the Cordoba courtroom when the verdicts were read. During the trial, Videla assumed "responsibility" for actions taken by subordinates in the Dirty War, repeating in a pre-sentencing hearing Tuesday: "I claim the honor of victory and I regret the consequences."

Videla, who ruled from the start of the coup until 1981, is 85. The court said Wednesday it would assign doctors to determine whether he is fit enough to serve his sentence in a civilian penitentary, reported Clarin (link in Spanish). During trial, the men were photographed sleeping.

Videla had already been sentenced and jailed for Dirty War crimes after the return to democracy in Argentina in 1985, but was pardoned and released by President Carlos Menem in 1990. In 2007, the government of President Nestor Kirchner annulled the pardons against former junta members, opening the door for Videla to face trial again.

During his rule, Videla once famously replied to a journalist's questions on victims: "The disappeared are just that, disappeared. They are neither alive nor dead. They are disappeared."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla (center) during his trial in Cordoba, Argentina. Credit: Reuters