- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 22, 2010

BUENOS AIRES | Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday for the torture and murder of 31 prisoners in 1976.

It was the first conviction for the military junta leader in 25 years of democracy, and it prompted loud applause in a courtroom packed with relatives of the victims.

Videla, who led the military coup that installed Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship, is considered the architect of a dirty war that eliminated thousands of people in a crackdown on armed leftist guerrillas and their supporters.

The judges found Videla “criminally responsible” for the torture and deaths of 31 prisoners who were pulled from civilian jail cells and officially “shot while trying to escape” as the military consolidated its power in the months after the coup.

In court testimony, Videla claimed Argentine society demanded the crackdown to prevent a Marxist revolution and complained that “terrorists” now run the country.

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 leaders amnesty.

After a concerted campaign to reform Argentina’s judicial system and replace 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 disappeared.

This was the first of dozens of trials coming up for Videla, now 85.

He was among two dozen defendants - most of them former military and police officials - charged with torture, murder and cover-ups in the deaths of the 31 political prisoners in provincial Cordoba.

Also sentenced to life was former Gen. Luciano Benjamin Menendez, who directed the early war against leftist subversives across much of northern Argentina.

Just before he was sentenced, Menendez said 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.

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.

About 13,000 people were killed or disappeared during the dirty war, according to a government count. Human rights group estimate the figure is actually 30,000.

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