Argentina's last dictator gets 25 years in prison

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina's last dictator was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison Tuesday for kidnappings and torture during the nation's 1976-1983 military regime.

Reynaldo Bignone, 82, was convicted along with five other former military officers in 56 cases involving torture, illegal detentions and other crimes in one of Argentina's largest torture centers, the Campo de Mayo army base.

Human rights groups say that of the 4,000 dissidents taken to the base, about 50 emerged alive. The army-run base also had a clandestine maternity center where detained dissidents gave birth only to have officials take their babies away to be adopted by military families.

Bignone was de facto president from 1982 to 1983, but the crimes he was convicted of were committed between 1976 and 1978, when he was a commander at the Campo Mayo base.

Five other retired officers received sentences ranging from 17 to 25 years, while a former police official was absolved.

The verdict was read by judge Marta Milloc in a small indoor stadium where many of those in attendance were family members of victims, who held up photos of their loved ones and applauded the ruling.

"Today is a good day for Argentines," said Estela de Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group. "We are in agreement (with the ruling), but a lot remains to be done. There are hundreds more accused."

Bignone, who is currently under house arrest, was not present.

He was appointed president by the military junta in the waning years of the dictatorship and it fell to him to protect the military as Argentina returned to democracy. He granted amnesty to human rights violators and ordered the destruction of documents related to torture and disappearances of political opponents before agreeing to transfer power to the democratically elected Raul Alfonsin.

Argentina's courts and congress eventually overturned the amnesty, and President Cristina Fernandez has made a priority of prosecuting leaders of the dictatorship.

A total of 1,464 people have been formally accused of committing crimes against humanity during the dictatorship, and 74 have been convicted, according to the Center of Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human rights group.

Bignone has denied responsibility for the crimes in past court proceedings.

Before the sentence was read, Bignone said it has never been demonstrated that "more than 8,000" people disappeared during the dictatorship.

"In times of peace the disappearance of a single person means one thing and in times of war it means something else," he said.

An official report listed 13,000 people killed during the 1976-83 dictatorship. Human rights groups say 30,000 died.