updated 8/28/2008 7:18:20 PM ET 2008-08-28T23:18:20

An Argentine court convicted two former generals on Thursday for the murder of a senator during the country’s seven-year military dictatorship and sentenced them to life in prison.

Retired Gens. Antonio Bussi and Luciano Menendez were found guilty of kidnapping, torturing and murdering Sen. Guillermo Vargas Aignasse.

Judge Gabriel Casas referred to their actions as “crimes against humanity.” He read the verdict to cheers from the courtroom audience in the country’s northern Tucuman province, where the victim served as senator.

Bussi, 82, will be allowed to remain under house arrest because he is over 75. That decision enraged human rights activists outside the courtroom, who threw rocks and swatted at police with sticks. Police in riot gear used tear gas to restrain the angry crowd.

Vargas Aignasse was 35 years old when he disappeared on the day of a March 24, 1976 military coup. The military later said they had released him from prison, but he was never seen again.

Government estimates say anywhere from 13,000 to 30,000 people were killed in a crackdown on leftist activists during the 7-year dictatorship.

Menendez, who is 81, will continue serving his sentence of life in prison in jail in another province, where he was convicted in July of human rights violations.

In his final words to the court, Menendez defended the actions of the armed forces during the dictatorship.

“Argentina flaunts the dubious merit of being the first country in history to judge its victorious soldiers,” he said. “They call the operations of the armed forces illegal repression.”

Bussi cried as he said that “I’ve never seen or done anything to Mr. Vargas Aignasse in my entire life.”

After democracy was restored in 1983, Bussi was accused of kidnappings and assassinations, but an amnesty law prevented him from being prosecuted. He was elected mayor of the capital of Tucuman in 2003, but was arrested three months later for the disappearance of Vargas Aignasse.

In 2005, Argentina’s Supreme Court struck down sweeping amnesties that had shielded hundreds of former officers from prosecution.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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