Former Argentine dictator Videla jailed for life

BUENOS AIRES Wed Dec 22, 2010 6:29pm EST

1 of 3. Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla (L) listens to the verdict during his trial in a courthouse in the province of Cordoba, December 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Mariano Paiz

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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who defends the campaign of state violence that killed thousands of people from 1976 to 1983, was jailed for life on Wednesday for murder, torture and kidnapping.

Videla, 85, who has spent years in a military jail and under house arrest, repeatedly justified the brutality of the military junta in the so-called Dirty War crackdown on leftist opponents during his trial.

"I don't talk about a dirty war. I prefer to talk about a fair war," he was quoted as telling the court in the central city of Cordoba, where he stood trial alongside 29 other military figures.

Human rights activists in the courtroom applauded when his sentence to a civilian prison was announced.

Rights groups say up to 30,000 people were kidnapped and murdered during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, which began when Videla and two other military leaders staged a coup on March 24, 1976.

Videla also criticized government efforts to bring military leaders to trial for rights crimes before the sentence was read out on Wednesday.

"Yesterday's enemies achieved their aims and now they govern the country and try to be seen as the champions of human rights," Videla was quoted as saying by daily La Nacion in a veiled reference to President Cristina Fernandez's center-left administration.

During the 2003-2007 presidency of Fernandez's late husband, Nestor Kirchner, more Dirty War investigations were opened.

When democracy returned to the South American country in 1983, Videla was sentenced to life imprisonment for the human rights crimes committed during his five years at the helm of the military junta.

But he spent just five years behind bars before being granted a pardon by then-President Carlos Menem.

Eight years later, a judge scrapped Videla's pardon, ruling that the stealing of babies born to political prisoners constituted a human rights crime and was therefore imprescriptible.

In 2007, a court ordered him to serve the life sentence he was given in 1985 when Argentina tried the top dictatorship leaders. Wednesday's conviction is the first since he was pardoned by Menem.

At the height of the 1970s bloodshed, Videla famously denied the kidnappings that were taking place, saying: "There are no disappearances, they're a nonentity, they don't exist."

(Editing by Jackie Frank)

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