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Gen. Videla, leader of Argentine junta, dies in prison

BUENOS AIRES, May 17 (UPI) -- Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, who led the Argentine military junta that killed thousands of opponents, died Friday in prison, government officials said. He was 87.

The New York Times reported his death at the Marcos Paz Prison in Buenos Aires was announced by the Secretariat for Human Rights.

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The son of an Army officer, Videla graduated from the National Military College in 1944 and rose to be a brigadier general. In 1975, President Isabela Martinez de Peron, widow of populist leader Juan Peron, named him chief of the general staff.

A year later, Videla became the country's ruler in a coup against Peron that installed a government calling itself the National Reorganization Process. Instead of fulfilling a promise to restore civilian government, Videla began an effort to destroy leftist guerrillas who had been fighting Peron.

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The junta eventually targeted anyone believed to have connections to radical politics in what became known as the Dirty War. Students, journalists, leaders and members of unions and lawyers disappeared.

The government also suspended Congress and banned strikes and political parties.

"One becomes a terrorist not only by killing with a weapon or setting a bomb but also by encouraging others through ideas that go against our Western and Christian civilization," Videla said in 1977.

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Videla stepped down in 1981, two years after declaring the junta had to "win the peace" by restoring Argentina's economy. In 1982, the junta led Argentina into a confrontation with Britain in the Falklands War, which brought about its collapse and democratic elections in 1983.

After the restoration of democracy, Videla was sentenced to life in prison for torture, murder and other human rights abuses, only to be pardoned by President Carlos Menem in 1990. In 2007, the Supreme Court overturned his pardon and others, and in 2012 he was convicted of kidnapping the children of victims of the Dirty War who were adopted by military families.

Videla was married and had seven children.

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