BUENOS AIRES — The U.S. government knew that Argentina's military junta in the 1970s and '80s was stealing babies from leftist political prisoners who were jailed or killed in torture centers, a former U.S. State Department official testified Thursday.
Elliott Abrams, U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs during that period, testified via videoconference in the trial of former military officials here accused of the kidnapping scheme.
"We were aware of this situation," Mr. Abrams said. "And we believed we weren't talking about one or two children, or one or two officers who had taken children.
"We thought there was a pattern or a plan because a lot of people were being jailed or killed. It seemed to us that the military government had decided that at least some of the children of those people would be given to other families."
Between 1976 and 1983, the junta carried out a campaign of repression against communist militants, students, trade unionists and Marxist guerrillas. It is said to have killed, or "disappeared," 30,000 people.
Amnesty laws that had protected the officials for years were repealed in the early 2000s, prompting dozens of trials.
Jorge Rafael Videla, Argentina's president from 1976 to 1981, and Reynaldo Bignone, president from 1982 to 1983, are on trial with other former security officials. They are accused of stealing 35 children, though a group of activist grandmothers claims some 500 children were taken.
Mr. Abrams' testimony countered the defendants' claim that no plan for taking children existed.
Alan Iud, a lawyer who questioned the former State Department official on behalf of the grandmothers' group, The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, said Mr. Abrams' testimony "exceeded our expectations."
Mr. Iud said it proved that Mr. Bignone knew of the kidnappings and refused to return the children to their families.
The lawyer also said it showed that the systematic appropriation of children "was a high-level diplomatic matter" between the U.S. and Argentina.
During his testimony, Mr. Abrams read from a diplomatic cable he wrote on Dec. 3, 1982.
The document, declassified by the U.S. government in December, summarized a conversation between himself and Argentina's then-ambassador to the U.S., Lucio Alberto Garcia del Solar, at the Jockey Club of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C.
"I raised with the Ambassador the question of children in this context, such as children born to prisoners or children taken from their families during the Dirty War," Mr. Abrams read from the cable. "While the disappeared were dead, these children were alive and this was in a sense the gravest humanitarian problem.
"The Ambassador agreed completely and had already made this point to his foreign minister and the president. They had not rejected his view but had pointed on the problem, for example, of taking children from their adoptive parents."
Mr. Abrams testified that U.S. officials thought the kidnapping scheme "was a very significant human rights problem. In one way the most significant human rights problem because these people were alive it was an ongoing problem."