updated 12/10/2009 7:57:29 PM ET 2009-12-11T00:57:29

A former navy spy goes on trial Friday in the torture deaths of two French nuns, a journalist and three founders of a human rights group that he infiltrated during Argentina's military dictatorship.

Known as the blond "Angel of Death" for his choirboy looks and reputed ruthlessness, former Capt. Alfredo Astiz is accused of playing a key role in the 1976-83 military junta's effort to eliminate leftist dissidents and suspected sympathizers.

To infiltrate the rights groups, a youthful Astiz posed as the brother of one of the thousands of Argentines who were abducted and presumably killed by security forces at clandestine torture centers.

Astiz is among 19 former members of the navy who are being tried as part of the long-awaited "megacase" involving abductions, tortures and murders inside Argentina's Navy Mechanics School. Human rights groups say more than 5,000 political prisoners passed through its torture chambers. Less than half survived.

"Only a fraction of the people responsible are on trial here," said Luis Alem, the government's deputy of human rights. "We hope this will be the starting point and that they get life sentences."

Allegedly had a central role
Astiz, now 58, allegedly had a central role in the kidnappings and disappearance of French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh and several founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that began gathering in the plaza outside the presidential palace shortly after the 1976 military coup to demand answers about their children's whereabouts.

The group — guided by Domon, Duquet and a third nun who would later flee the country — also gathered at a neighborhood church to discuss what they had learned. There, a young man who called himself Gustavo Nino said his brother had disappeared and became a regular at the meetings.

Nino was in fact Astiz — and in December 1977 he helped security forces identify and kidnap Domon, Duquet and 10 other members of the group. Walsh also disappeared that year, a day after he published an open letter accusing the junta of violating human rights.

Witnesses said Duquet was imprisoned at the Navy Mechanics School before her body was tossed from a plane into the Atlantic Ocean on one of many "flights of death" meant to permanently dispose of prisoners' bodies.

But currents pushed Duquet's body ashore, and she was buried in a nameless grave. It wasn't until 2005 that Argentine forensic anthropologists identified her remains and those of another Mothers group founder, Azucena Villaflor de Vincenti.

Lawyer says he was following orders
Astiz denies knowing about the death flights, and his lawyer says that as a uniformed member of the military he was following orders to protect the nation from extremist violence.

He was convicted in absentia by a jury in France in 1990 and sentenced to life in prison for the disappearance of the nuns. Italy also gave Astiz a life sentence for the deaths of three of its citizens, and he is wanted in Sweden for another killing in Argentina's "dirty war" against dissidents.

Argentina tried Astiz before — in 1985. But a pair of amnesty laws passed that year halted the proceedings. Argentina reopened the cases in 2005 after the Supreme Court annulled the amnesties. Only now are the cases finally going to trial.

A total of 358 Argentines are awaiting trial for dirty war crimes, according to the Center for Legal and Social Studies. Official records say the dictatorship killed 13,000 people, but human rights groups say the true toll was 30,000.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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