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Ex-dictators guilty of baby thefts

Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla has been convicted and jailed for 50 years for a systematic plan to steal babies from prisoners who were kidnapped, tortured and killed during the military junta's war on left-wing dissenters 30 years ago.

Argentina's last dictator, Reynaldo Bignone, was also convicted and jailed for 15 years.

"This is a historic day. Today legal justice has been made real - never again the justice of one's own hands, which the repressors were known for," prominent rights activist Tati Almeida said outside the court in Buenos Aires, where a jubilant crowd watched on a big screen and cheered each sentence.

The baby thefts set Argentina's 1976-1983 regime apart from all the other juntas that ruled in Latin America at the time. Videla and other military and police officials were determined to remove any trace of the armed leftist guerrilla movement they said threatened the country's future.

The "dirty war" eventually claimed 13,000 victims according to official records. Many were pregnant women who were "disappeared" shortly after giving birth in clandestine maternity wards.

Videla, 86, denied there was any systematic plan to remove the babies and said prisoners used their unborn children as "human shields" in their fight against the state. Nine others, mostly former military and police officials, also were accused in the trial, which focused on 34 baby thefts. Seven were convicted and two were found not guilty.

Witnesses included former US diplomat Elliot Abrams, called to give evidence after a long-secret memo describing his clandestine meeting with Argentina's ambassador was made public at the request of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group whose evidence-gathering efforts were key to the trial.

The Grandmothers group has since used DNA evidence to help 106 people who were stolen from prisoners as babies recover their true identities, and 26 of these cases were part of this trial. The rights group estimates as many as 500 babies could have been stolen, but the destruction of documents and passage of time make it impossible to know for sure.

Prosecutors had asked for 50 years for Videla and four others. Ms Almeida said "in some cases we would have preferred longer sentences, but since they're such old men now, it's almost like a perpetual sentence".

Videla received the maximum sentence as the man criminally responsible for 20 of the thefts. He and Bignone, 84, already have life sentences for other crimes against humanity and are serving time behind bars despite an Argentine law that usually permits criminals over 70 to stay at home.

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