BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A long-awaited trial began Monday for two former Argentine dictators who allegedly oversaw a systematic plan to steal babies born to political prisoners three decades ago.
Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone are accused in 34 cases of infants who were taken from mothers held in Argentina's largest clandestine torture and detention centers, the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires and the Campo de Mayo army base northwest of the city.
Also on trial are five military figures and a doctor who attended to the detainees.
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The case was opened 14 years ago at the request of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a leading human rights group. It may take up to a year to hear testimony from about 370 witnesses.
Videla, 85, has been sentenced to life in prison, and Bignone, 83, is serving a 25-year term for other crimes committed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, but this is the first trial focused on the alleged plan to steal as many as 400 infants from leftists who were kidnapped, tortured and made to disappear during the junta's crackdown on political dissent.
There are 13,000 people on the official list of those killed, although rights groups estimate as many as 30,000 died.
The dictatorship generally drew the line at killing children, but the existence of babies belonging to people who officially no longer existed created a problem for the junta leaders. The indictment alleges they solved it by falsifying paperwork and arranging illegal adoptions by people sympathetic to the military regime.
Some 500 women were known to be pregnant before they disappeared, according to formal complaints from their families or other official witness accounts. To date, 102 people born to vanished dissidents have since recovered their true identities with the aid of the Grandmothers, which helped create a national database of DNA evidence to match children with their birth families.
The stolen grandchildren of Estela de Carlotto, co-founder of the Grandmothers, and poet Juan Gelman are among the cases cited in this trial.
Rights activists are hoping for long sentences for Videla, who led the first military junta after the 1976 coup, and Bignone, who ran the Campo de Mayo center and then served as Argentina's last military president before the return of democracy in 1983.
Also on trial are Jorge Luis Magnacco, a doctor who worked in the navy detention center, and five prominent dictatorship figures: Antonio Vanek, the junta's former navy attache in Washington; Jorge "Tigre" Acosta, who allegedly ran the navy center's torture sessions; former army Gen. Santiago Riveros, responsible for gathering intelligence from detainees at Campo de Mayo; former admiral Ruben Franco; and former prefect Juan Antonio Azic, who allegedly tortured detainees under Acosta's direction.
The defendants, all now old and gray-haired, were led in handcuffs into the courtroom as a three-judge panel opened the trial. Photographers and cameramen were briefly allowed in. After a short time, Videla began to nod off as the clerk read aloud several lengthy indictments.
Ending impunity for human rights violations committed by the dictatorship is a top priority for President Cristina Fernandez, whose center-left government includes many people who fought the military regime in one way or another.
After years of preparation following the reversal of amnesties by Argentina's congress and Supreme Court, more than 20 cases have reached trial.
The defendants did not speak Monday, but they and their supporters have dismissed the entire process as an act of revenge by the leftist ideologues they defeated decades ago, and they deny there was any plan to steal babies.
Leonardo Fossati's mother was three months pregnant when she was kidnapped in 1977 and she gave birth to him in police custody before vanishing.
Fossati rediscovered his birth family in 2005 with help from the Grandmothers, and he is a plaintiff in the case.
"This trial is necessary to set things straight," he said. "For a long time now, they have denied there was a systematic plan to steal babies."
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