BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla denied Tuesday that his government stole babies from women who were detained and then executed during the country's 1976-1983 dictatorship.
Videla, 86, was defiant as he testified during a trial on charges that his administration stole 34 babies from their mothers as they were held in torture centers, going so far as to blame the women.
"If the removal of an underage minor took place, it was not because of an implicit order . framed in a systematic plan and coming from the upper ranks of the armed forces during the years of the war against terrorism," Videla said. With his thick glasses, white hair and mustache, Videla looked more like a grandfather than the former strongman who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for kidnapping, torture and murder.
Videla continued: "All the pregnant ones referred to in the suit and by prosecutors were active militants of a mechanism of terror and many of them used their child embryos as human shields when they operated as fighters."
Human rights groups estimate that up to 30,000 people were killed in a government-sponsored crackdown on leftist dissidents during the so-called Dirty War. Official estimates put the number at 13,000 — many of them women, whose babies were kidnapped and adopted by army families or allies of the regime and illegally registered.
The activist group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo says some 500 children were born while their mothers were in captivity. The group has helped 106 of them reunite with their biological families. The kidnapping of babies from mothers in captivity is considered a crime against humanity.
Videla led the military junta from 1976 to 1981, following a coup that he staged with other military officials. He is now on trial for kidnapping and hiding minors under the age of 10 during the dictatorship. Argentina's Supreme Court struck two amnesty laws in 2005 that had protected military officials from dictatorship-era human rights crimes. Since then, many of the officials have been jailed.
Prosecutors are asking for a 50-year prison sentence for Videla, who was sentenced to a second life sentence in 2011 for human rights abuses. The prosecutors argue that the military regime set up detention centers where mothers were kept until they gave birth.
During closing arguments Tuesday, Videla said he was a political prisoner and called the case a farce set up to satisfy "a quest for revenge" by those who were "defeated by the military" in the 1970s.
"I will assume under protest the unjust sentence that I might be given for my contribution in the achievement of national harmony," Videla said.
The trial began Feb. 2011 but the sentence date has not been set yet. Also standing trial is Reynaldo Bignone, the last president during the dictatorship, as well as several former military officials and a doctor who assisted the pregnant women in captivity.
At the time of the Dirty War, the junta denied any knowledge of the baby thefts, let alone responsibility for the disappearance of political prisoners. In public, the U.S. government also was circumspect, even as the junta's death squads kidnapped and killed its opponents.
A former U.S. diplomat testified earlier this year that U.S. officials knew Argentina's military regime was taking babies from jailed dissidents during the Dirty War and that it appeared to be a systematic effort at the time.