Trial begins for Argentine ex-dictator Videla, facing new charges of crimes against humanity

By Debora Rey, AP
Friday, July 2, 2010

Argentine ex-dictator faces human rights charges

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla went on trial Friday, facing the first of a wave of human rights charges that have accumulated against him since the Supreme Court struck down his presidential pardon in 2007.

Videla, 84, shifted silently in his seat, with his hair thinned and his trademark black mustache gone gray, but otherwise apparently healthy as the proceedings began. He is among two dozen dictatorship-era figures who face murder charges in the deaths of 31 political prisoners who were pulled from their jail cells shortly after his 1976 military coup and, according to the official story, shot while trying to escape.

Considered the architect of Argentina’s Dirty War that resulted in as many as 30,000 deaths during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, Videla was sentenced to life in prison for torture, murder and other crimes in 1985 as part of a historic trial against the junta’s leaders, but was pardoned after three years by then-President Carlos Menem.

Nearly 20 years later, the high court overturned the pardon, restoring Videla’s convictions and clearing the way for other new cases against him. At least two other trials are scheduled to start this year, including one involving dozens of babies born in captivity to prisoners who were later killed.

What distinguishes the Cordoba case from others is that its victims had been jailed under the civilian government before the coup, and were executed before they could stand trial, attorney Miguel Ceballos said.

Ceballos is representing the families of victims, including his own father: Miguel Angel Ceballos was active in the People’s Revolutionary Army, a leftist guerrilla group, when he was arrested in 1974 for violating anti-subversion laws.

“They shot him in a ravine a few blocks from the jail along with other prisoners,” Ceballos said. “When they came looking for my father at the prison, he knew he would be killed. He said goodbye to his friends and left a photo of our family so they could tell us what had happened.”

The body was delivered to the family shortly thereafter. The other victims, lefists between 21 and 45 years old, were killed in similar fashion — “shot while trying to escape” — in the months after the coup on March 24, 1976.

Videla and military leaders formed a junta that eliminated political parties, took over unions, censored the media and tortured and killed thousands of “subversives” — actions the junta justified as necessary to fight communism.

Videla’s fellow defendants include former army Gen. Luciano Benjamin Menendez, who led the campaign against subversives in a wide swath of Argentina, and 22 other retired military and police officials and some civilians.

Ceballos said Videla, as army commander and president of the junta, was the one who gave the order to eliminate all leftist activists.

“I knew everything that happened. I was above everyone,” Videla himself told the authors of his 2001 biography, “The Dictator.”

At the height of his power, Videla dismissed concerns about the thousands of people who had vanished. “The disappeared do not exist,” he said in a 1977 news conference in Venezuela.

And yet while Videla presided over the opening ceremonies of the 1978 World Cup at a stadium in Buenos Aires, men under his command were torturing prisoners several blocks away inside a secret detention center.

Videla — who also faces charges in Italy, Spain, France and Germany involving the deaths of their citizens in Argentina — was able to stay in military detention or under house arrest for many years. Now, despite his advanced age, he’s being held in a common cell.

Videla and his lawyers have not commented on the Cordoba case. In the past, however, Videla has said Argentina was at war back then and military personnel should not be judged for the deaths. Additionally, he said he does not recognize civilian justice and would only accept being tried in a military court.

With Videla already serving a life sentence, any new convictions would not mean any more jail time for the former dictator — but could bring some measure of relief to the families of the dead.

“This trial has been a long time coming, but there has to be closure. I don’t believe anyone should take the law into their own hands,” Ceballos said. “He is having the trial he denied my father.”

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