updated 12/14/2007 5:00:41 PM ET 2007-12-14T22:00:41

Police have detained the wife and two children of a former coast guard officer who died in custody while facing a dictatorship-era human rights trial, hours after an autopsy found cyanide in the man's blood, a judge said Friday.

Hector Febres, 66, who was accused of kidnapping and torturing dissidents during the past military dictatorship, died in his cell at a navy brig Monday, four days before an expected verdict in his high-profile trial. Autopsy results showed Febres had cyanide in his bloodstream at the time of his death.

Federal Judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado said that she had ordered the detention of two officers in charge of the navy brig, in addition to the family members.

The judge's office did not explain the reason for the detentions, which came hours after the release of autopsy results. Authorities said they had not immediately determined if Febres poisoned himself.

Febres, who was facing life in prison on charges related to the disappearance and torture of four people during the dictatorship's "Dirty War" crackdown on dissent, was the first suspect tried for abuse at the notorious Navy Mechanics' School, the largest prison camp of the 1976-1983 junta.

During his trial, Argentine prosecutors characterized Febres as a fierce torturer. His defense team insisted he was innocent.

Jailers found Febres dead in his cell before breakfast on Monday.

Surprising developments
Martin Orozco, a defense lawyer for Febres' relatives, said the man's wife, daughter and son were being held at separate detention centers and barred from immediate contact with lawyers. He said he was still trying to determine why they were picked up.

"I'm surprised by these developments," Orozco said.

About 13,000 people were killed or made to "disappear" by security forces during Argentina's seven-year junta, according to official figures. Human rights groups say the number is closer to 30,000.

About 4,500 prisoners passed through the Navy Mechanics School, and many were never seen again. The military recently abandoned the site, which is being converted into a museum and memorial to Dirty War victims.

President Cristina Fernandez, who was sworn in Monday, has promised to speed up Dirty War prosecutions and conclude dozens of slow-moving human rights cases.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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