BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Former 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 prompted loud applause in a courtroom packed with relatives of the victims.
Videla, who led the military coup that installed Argentina’s 1976-1983 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.
Current President Cristina Fernandez has encouraged a wave of new trials of former military and police figures involved in the clandestine torture centres where thousands of the regime’s opponents disappeared.
This was the first of dozens of trials coming up for Videla, now 85.