|Former Argentine general and dictator Jorge Rafael Videla (L) and former army general Luciano Benjamin Menendez await for their sentence in the trial for the murder of 31 political prisoners. (AFP/Getty Images)|
By MATT MOFFETT
The Wall Street Journal
BUENOS AIRES—Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, on trial for the first time since the country's Supreme Court rescinded his amnesty, was sentenced to life in prison by a federal court for the murder of 31 political prisoners in 1976.
Mr. Videla ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1981 and presided over the so-called Dirty War in which at least 10,000 people suspected of working against the regime, and perhaps as many as 30,000, were "disappeared" and killed, according to historians and human-rights groups.
After the country returned to democracy, Mr. Videla was sentenced in a landmark 1985 trial to life in prison for abuses committed during his rule. He served five years before he and other figures from the dictatorship were pardoned by President Carlos Menem, who said he was trying to close the book on a divisive era in Argentine history. The Supreme Court struck down the pardons in 2007, paving the way for new cases to be brought against officials from the dictatorship.
Wednesday's sentence was the culmination of a six-month trial in the city of Cordoba revolving around the case of 31 prisoners suspected of opposing the regime, who were rousted from their cells and executed following the coup that brought Mr. Videla to power. A three-judge panel issued the sentence, which it specified should be served in a common prison facility, as opposed to in a military jail or under house arrest.
Mr. Videla, 85 years old, sometimes appeared to doze off during the trial. He was defiant when he did speak.
"I don't speak of 'Dirty War,' I prefer to speak of 'just war,' " he said on Tuesday, asserting that his government had implemented a legitimate defense strategy against leftist guerrilla groups.
He took thinly veiled swipes at the government of President Cristina Kirchner, who has acted aggressively to bring former officials of the dictatorship to justice. "The enemies of yesterday achieved their goal and govern the country and they try to set themselves up as champions of human rights," Mr. Videla said.
Convicted along with Mr. Videla were 29 other security officials from the dictatorship, including former Gen. Luciano Benjamin Menendez, who headed anti-guerrilla operations in a large section of the country.