Page last updated at 22:04 GMT, Thursday, 24 July 2008 23:04 UK

Life for Argentine ex-army chief

Luciano Benjamin Menendez in court in Cordoba, 27 May 2008
Menendez kidnapped, tortured and killed the four left-wing activists

An Argentine ex-army officer has been sentenced to life in prison for the 1977 kidnapping, torture and killing of four left-wing activists.

Luciano Benjamin Menendez, 80, was found guilty along with seven others of the crimes.

Prosecutors say the victims were dumped in the street to make it look like they died in a shoot-out.

Menendez was one of Argentina's most feared army officers during military rule between 1976 and 1983.

The BBC's Daniel Schweimler in Argentina says family and friends of the victims were in court, many in tears, others simply staring silently at Menendez as the verdict was read out.

He adds that hundreds of others watched on a giant screen outside the courthouse, to witness a chapter closing on one of the darkest periods of Argentine history.

Torture centre

Menendez, who reached the rank of general, commanded the regional Third Army Corps for five years in the northern city of Cordoba.

Luciano Benjamin Menendez in court in Cordoba, 24 July 2008
Argentine society was involved in a war provoked by international Marxists, the same people that still persist in their obscure aim
Luciano Benjamin Menendez

He is viewed by Argentine human rights activists as a prime example of the military's cruel rule in the 1970s and 1980s.

The left-wing activists who died in Cordoba in 1977 were Hilda Palacios, Carlos Laja, Ruben Cardozo and Humberto Brandalisi.

Prosecutors said the four were taken to a clandestine torture centre and held bound and gagged for a month before being executed.

Their bodies were then dumped in the street to make it look like they had died in a battle with the authorities - a common practice at the time.

Trials restarted

Amnesties and pardons introduced after the return to civilian rule meant that most of those held responsible for the kidnap, torture and killing of tens of thousands of Argentines in the period that became known as the "Dirty War" escaped prosecution.

But three years ago those laws were ruled unconstitutional and the trials started again.

Menedez, who was under house arrest for previous Dirty War convictions, has now been ordered to prison by the three-judge panel, but he remains unrepentant, adamant that he had been fighting a war against communist subversives.

"Argentine society was involved in a war provoked by international Marxists, the same people that still persist in their obscure aim," he told the court just before he was sentenced.

"The difference is a sad one for our homeland as before the terrorists were living illegally and now they do so within the law, pretending to be peaceful citizens, respecting the law and the constitution."

The Cordoba trial was the first major one concerning crimes committed during the Dirty War to be held in the city.

Previously, most human rights cases were tried in Buenos Aires and the surrounding area.

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