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Argentina's Ex-Leader Gets Life : Videla, 4 Others Jailed for Human Rights Offenses

December 10, 1985|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — An Argentine federal court Monday convicted former military President Jorge R. Videla of massive human rights violations that "cannot be justified or excused" and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Adm. Emilio E. Massera, the navy member of the three-man junta headed by Videla, also was sentenced to life in prison, specifically for three murders and 69 instances of torture.

The court also convicted three other members of former military juntas of abuses during Argentina's "dirty war" against Marxist-led terrorists and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 54 months to life.

Four Others Acquitted

Climaxing the first trial in Latin American history in which an elected government has brought military predecessors to justice for state terrorism, the court acquitted four other defendants. The nine defendants had ruled Argentina as members of three successive military juntas between 1976 and 1982.

All but two of the convicted defendants received sentences more lenient than those demanded by the prosecution, a development that disappointed representatives of human rights organizations here.

"The sentences do not satisfy the expectations of a democratic society," said Emilio Mignone, leader of a major human rights group.

The court, however, ordered military authorities to bring charges against subordinate commanders physically responsible for committing the abuses for which their top commanders were condemned Monday. That can only infuriate Argentine rightists, who have been lobbying against trials for the subordinates who carried out orders.

9,000 Documented Cases

Most of the abuses, which included 9,000 documented cases of kidnaping, illegal detention, robbery, torture and murder, occurred between 1976 and 1980, while Videla was president.

"It has been demonstrated that when the armed forces took power in a coup on March 24, 1976, they possessed all the legal instruments with which to effectively carry out repression within the law," the court found. "Instead, they chose to launch clandestine and illegal procedures based on orders given to the respective services by the accused."

In its conclusion, the court declared that crimes were committed against "a great many people, including those who belonged to subversive organizations and many who had nothing to do with them."

The court said that after careful study of national and international rules of law and war, "it has not found a single rule under which those responsible for the violations denounced during this trial can be justified or excused."

A few hours before the court ruled, the government of President Raul Alfonsin announced the early lifting of a 60-day state of siege imposed Oct. 25 on the eve of midterm congressional elections.

Alfonsin decreed the state of siege, a measure under which some constitutional guarantees may be suspended, to permit the summary detention of six army officers and six right-wing civilians whom the government accused of fomenting a destabilizing campaign that included a round of nuisance bombings.

Beyond ordering the arrest of the 12, Alfonsin made no use of the siege powers. The government portrayed the destabilizing moves as acts aimed at discrediting the elections, held Nov. 4 and won by Alfonsin's Radical Civic Union party, and at fueling unrest within the armed forces over the trial of the former junta leaders. In lifting the emergency decree Monday, the government said the unrest that prompted it has "fallen vertically in intensity" and that it is no longer needed.

Only One in Court

Of the nine accused officers, all but air force Gen. Omar D. Graffigna exercised their right not to appear for Monday's verdict and sentencing, which was broadcast live by television and radio.

Justice Leon Carlos Arslanian, president of the six-judge court that also functioned as jury, read a 37-minute summary of the bulky decision to prosecutors, defense lawyers and reporters in the same wood-paneled courtroom where the historic trial opened April 22. One human rights leader stalked from the room before Arslanian finished reading.

By the time testimony ended Aug. 14, nearly 1,000 witnesses had painted a gruesome portrait of calculated state terrorism used to defeat the leftist guerrillas during the "dirty war."

Blame on Individuals

In demanding stiff sentences, Chief Prosecutor Julio Strassera charged that the repression was orchestrated by the juntas. The judges disagreed, saying that the abuses were the responsibility of individual officers in command of their respective services, with the army most responsible and the navy second.

Nearly two dozen defense lawyers representing the nine officers argued that the armed forces were forced to fight fire with fire to win a war against terrorists who struck from hiding and killed without mercy. The court rejected that argument, too. Both sides now have 10 working days in which they may appeal to the Supreme Court.

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