BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (GPI)--Absolute silence reigns in the courtroom in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. On one side of the room sit 11 defendants – including ex-dictator of Argentina Jorge Rafael Videla. On the other side wait the plaintiffs – relatives of citizens who were kidnapped and assassinated by the military regime that governed the country from 1976 to 1983.
An enormous digital clock presides over the courtroom. It marks every second and every minute of a 16-year wait for justice since families of victims first came forward. That wait abruptly ended yesterday when the judge read the sentence. The verdict acknowledged for the first time the existence of a systematic plan to kidnap children born in captivity during the dictatorship of Videla.
As the clock struck 6:22 p.m. on July 5, the tribunal sentenced Videla to 50 years in prison for the theft of hundreds of babies. It also confirmed that the military junta’s appropriation of minors was part of a systematic plan, not just a few isolated incidents.
Members of the military regime kidnapped, tortured and assassinated some 30,000 people on the basis of ideology, according to human rights organizations. They also stole more than 500 babies from mothers who gave birth in clandestine maternity wards at concentration camps erected throughout the country and distributed them to other families.
Of these stolen children, 105 have been found and returned to their families. Today, they are adults, around 30 years old. A group of mothers first filed reports of their disappeared children in 1996.
Videla, 86, who governed the country from 1976 to 1981 and has already amassed various sentences for other crimes against humanity, effectively received a life sentence, which he will serve without the options of house arrest or release.
The tribunal had asked the audience to restrain from exclamations and to remain silent, but an audible expression of joy filled the premises in response to the verdict. The mothers of the kidnapped joined hands, while others hugged the grandchildren who had been returned to them.
One of those grandchildren, María Victoria Moyano, a plaintiff in the case, says that the verdict fulfilled the two wishes that they had in bringing the case to court.
“I wanted it to be clear that this was a systematic plan of the theft of babies,” says Moyano, 33. “What there was in Argentina was a genocide, directed at a sector, the popular working class, and the children were part of that plan of appropriation so that our grandmothers didn’t raise us. I also wanted it to be a sentence to a common and real prison.”
At the same time, she says that justice should continue in order to penalize everyone responsible for these crimes.
“If this was a plan, there are more responsible than those who are here standing trial,” says Moyano, her voice breaking as she speaks. “There’s a middle sector of civilians, of businessmen, who never sat in court. It is the task that remains unfinished.”
Another of the returned grandchildren, Victoria Montenegro, who was raised by a man who assassinated her parents, says she was happy to hear the sentence. But she also notes that there are many other youth who still don’t know that they were stolen as babies during the military dictatorship.
“I had a refreshing feeling,” she says. “Beyond the situation, which is sad, we are together. We have our identity. We are very happy to be able to carry our names and our stories in spite of everything. But there are also many youth who are missing.”
Videla listened to the verdict without blinking. Later, eight policemen of the Argentine Federal Penitentiary Service removed him from the courtroom in handcuffs.
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