BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – An Argentine court sentenced 12 former military and police officials to life in prison on Wednesday for crimes against humanity committed during the country's 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Among those sentenced to life in the landmark ruling was Alfredo Astiz, a 59-year-old former navy spy nicknamed "the Angel of Death." Astiz is accused of participating in the disappearance, torture and murder of two French nuns, a journalist and three founders of a human rights group that he infiltrated while spying for the dictatorship.
The crimes, which included 86 cases of kidnapping, torture and murder against leftist dissidents, were committed inside the Navy Mechanics School, one of the military junta's principal torture centers used to crush the threat of armed revolution. About 5,000 detainees passed through the school. Fewer than half survived.
Four other defendants were sentenced to between 18 and 25 years in prison, and two others were absolved.
The verdicts were applauded by human rights activists and families of the victims who watched the verdict on a big screen television.
"Ole, ole, they will have the same fate as the Nazis, wherever they go we will find them," family members chanted.
The Navy Mechanics School, a leafy former military campus, is now home to a museum dedicated to preserving evidence of crimes against humanity. It also used to house a maternity ward where pregnant detainees were held until they gave birth and then were made to "disappear." A separate trial alleging that systematic baby thefts were part of the junta's anti-subversion strategy is under way in another courtroom.
Survivors and relatives of victims from the nation's "dirty war" against leftist guerrillas and political opponents called it a "historic day."
Astiz has accused President Cristina Fernandez of promoting unjust and illegitimate prosecutions for her own political gain. Her late husband and predecessor, President Nestor Kirchner, encouraged the trials after Argentina's Congress and Supreme Court removed amnesties that had protected junta veterans.
"This government doesn't hesitate in its revenge against we people who combated terrorism," Astiz said. "It seeks revenge through martyrdom and death in prison."
In neighboring Uruguay, lawmakers planned to vote Wednesday to revoke an amnesty law that protected scores of officials in that country's 1973-1985 dictatorship from human rights prosecutions.
The two countries are among several Latin American nations still struggling to come to terms with Cold War dictatorships in which regimes routinely tortured, killed or "disappeared" suspected opponents. Most of those dictatorships ended nearly three decades ago.
Members of Uruguay's lower house of Congress, or Chamber of Deputies, were debating the measure late Wednesday.
Backed by the governing Broad Front coalition, the measure was approved Tuesday by the country's Senate by a close vote of 16-15. The Chamber of Deputies was also expected to pass the measure following a debate that began in the afternoon and was expected to last into the night.
The Inter-American Human Rights court has demanded that Uruguay lift impediments to prosecuting dictatorship-era crimes, but the proposal has divided the politically moderate country, where memories of the 1973-1985 military government remain fresh.
Congressional allies of President Jose Mujica tried and failed to revoke the amnesty law in May.
The opposition has said the measure violates the constitution and notes that the amnesty was approved by Uruguayans in two national referendums, first in 1989 and then in 2009.
Nationalist Sen. Jorge Saravia called Tuesday's senate vote "a coup d'etat" that ignores the decision of citizens in the two plebiscites.
Uruguay's Congress approved the military amnesty in 1986, after leftist guerrillas who had fought the government received amnesties.
Members of Uruguay's armed forces have threatened to seek prosecution of former Tupamaro guerrillas if legislators strike down the military amnesty.