Argentine rights trial spotlights military abuses

Argentina's former military rulers went on trial here Tuesday for kidnappings and murders committed during a coordinated crackdown on dissent by South American military regimes.

Former junta leaders Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone joined 23 other people accused of crimes committed under the so-called Condor Plan, during the so-called "dirty war" of the 1970s and 1980s.

Military regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia allegedly coordinated their efforts against the left, sharing intelligence, transferring prisoners and killing or causing opposition figures to disappear in secret prisons.

"I am convinced of the existence of Condor Plan, and the actions of those implicated shows that there was an illicit association to transfer people from one country to another," prosecutor Miguel Angel Osorio told AFP.

Videla, 87, is already serving two life sentences for human rights abuses committed during military dictatorship, which ran from 1976 to 1983.

Dressed in a blue suit and tie, Videla listed impassively as the charges were read out at the start of the trial -- his fourth for human rights violations by a brutal military regime blamed for some 30,000 disappearances.

The accused were separated from relatives of the victims by a bullet-proof glass shield.

Security forces used the Condor Plan to pursue political opponents into neighboring countries and secretly seize them with local support, according to lawyers from rights groups that have pursued those cases in the courts for 14 years.

Among the nearly 100 such cases highlighted by the trial are those of Horacio Campiglia and Monica Susana Pinos de Binstock, Argentines who were kidnapped in 1980 and disappeared.

Lawyers allege they were picked up by Argentine intelligence agents at Rio de Janeiro's international airport and wound up in a clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires, never to be seen again.

Another case is that of Maria Claudia Garcia de Gelman, who was 19 years old and seven months pregnant when she was kidnapped in Buenos Aires by Uruguayan intelligence agents and transferred to Montevideo.

She gave birth in Montevideo's military hospital and later disappeared. Her daughter, Macarena, was illegally given to the family of a police officer, and did not discover her true identity until 2000 at the age of 23.

A judicial investigation opened in 1999 in response to complaints by relatives of foreigners who disappeared in Argentina, among them Sara Mendez, an Uruguayan woman whose two month old child was taken from her at an Argentine detention center. She saw her son again for the first time 26 years later.

Among the most notorious victims of the Condor Plan are said to be former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated in Washington; Chilean general Carlos Prats, murdered in Buenos Aires; and Uruguayan politicians Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutierrez Ruiz, killed in Buenos Aires.

Osorio said the prosecution will show an FBI cable, sent after the Letelier assassination, that he said confirms the Condor Plan's existence and explains that the objective is "to pursue the opposition and help the different governments in the region with intelligence and logistics in any of their territories."

"It is the first trial that will investigate Condor Plan globally and I understand that it is the first of its kind in Latin America," said Carolina Varsky, a lawyer representing Argentine and Uruguayan victims.

The only non-Argentine on trial is Manuel Cordero, a former colonel and Uruguayan military intelligence official, she said.

Cordero is under arrest in Buenos Aires and has been implicated in 11 cases, including that of the disappearance of Garcia de Gelman, who was the daughter-in-law of Argentine poet Juan Gelman.

"What we must now prove is the existence of an illicit association between the dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to pursue and eliminate opponents in any of those countries, with the support of the United States," Varsky said.

"To prove it we are relying on the testimony of survivors and a lot of documentation, including declassified US documents that implicate Washington," she said.

The trial is expected to last two years because of the complexity of the case.