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Argentine Officials Get 7 Years for Baby Thefts

March 30, 2004|From Reuters

BUENOS AIRES — A court sentenced two police officials Monday to seven years in prison for taking the babies of political detainees slain during the 1976-1983 "dirty war" and handing them over for adoption.

It was the first time an Argentine court has condemned senior officials under the military dictatorship for stealing babies, in what could set a precedent for human rights groups seeking to bring officials to trial.

Jorge Berges, a police physician, and provincial Police Chief Miguel Etchecolatz were found guilty of arranging the theft of a baby from imprisoned Uruguayan parents in 1977. The parents were later "disappeared" -- almost certainly killed -- by the military dictatorship.

"It serves as an important precedent, but we're not happy with the number of years they were condemned for," Lucas Miguel, an activist with the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights, said of the sentence.

Etchecolatz had been sentenced to 23 years in prison in the 1980s for kidnapping and torture during the dictatorship, but was released under an amnesty law.

Rights organizations have said dozens of babies were stolen from prisoners who were forced to give birth in dingy cells. In some cases the detainees were blindfolded so they were unable to see their babies.

Human rights groups say up to 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and killed during the dictatorship.

Military and police officials have escaped being jailed because of amnesty laws passed in the late 1980s. However, the courts have argued that the laws do not cover baby theft.

Junta leaders Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera are among those who have been indicted.

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