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The BBC's David Willey in Rome
"None of the accused was in court"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 6 December, 2000, 16:53 GMT
Argentina generals get life
A grave for the dead
Human rights groups say 30,000 were killed in the repression
An Italian court has sentenced two senior Argentinian military officers to life in jail for kidnapping and murdering eight Italians during Argentina's so-called Dirty War against political opponents.

Former generals Carlos Guillermo Suarez Mason and Omar Santiago Riveros did not attend the court hearings.

Five other defendants, including police chief Juan Carlos Girardi, were sentenced to 24 years in prison each, also in absentia.

The eight Italians, who all grew up in Argentina but carried Italian passports, were among unknown thousands of people who vanished during the military crackdown against suspected left-wingers between 1976 and 1983.

Mason, one of the most notorious generals of the Argentinian military dictatorship, is currently under house arrest in Buenos Aires on charges of kidnapping children during the Dirty War.

The families of the Italian victims have been campaigning for years for details of the so-called "disappeared" to be revealed in an Italian court.

Torture centres

About 500 Italians are presumed to have been killed, according to estimates prepared by the Italian embassy in Buenos Aires.

But this was whittled down to about 100 cases examined by the prosecution in Rome, of which only eight came to court.

The Italian legal process was stimulated after the former Chilean leader, General Pinochet, was detained in Britain in 1998 on charges of torture, as a result of action in the Spanish courts.

Formal charges were finally laid against the Argentinian generals in 1999, and the first witnesses only took the stand in Rome in June this year.

President Carlos Menem pardoned many leaders
According to a government commission appointed in 1984, about 9,800 people were listed as "disappeared" after being arrested during the military regime.

Many of those abducted were accused of being leftist sympathisers - they were sent to torture centres and then murdered.

Human rights organisations have said the actual number of victims is higher than 30,000.

Mason has been questioned about the abduction of babies from political dissidents during the height of the military repression.

It is believed about 300 children were taken from their mothers and given to army and police families for adoption.

Human rights groups say the babies' parents were then killed.

Many of the regime's top leaders were tried and sent to prison, but were pardoned by President Carlos Menem after he came to power in 1989.

Investigations are continuing into charges that officials stole babies born in detention camps, a crime not covered by the pardon.

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See also:

29 Sep 00 | Americas
Spain requests Cavallo extradition
19 Aug 98 | Crossing Continents
The Living Disappeared
12 Feb 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
Argentina's missing babies
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