Argentina sentences 15 to life over La Cacha prison

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Man with poster showing 21 people tried for crimes at La Cacha in La Plata, Argentina 24 Oct 2014Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
"These are those who committed genocide at La Cacha" reads the poster showing the pictures of the 21 people accused of involvement in torture

An Argentine ex-police chief and ex-interior minister have both been given life sentences for running a detention and torture centre in the 1970s.

They were among 19 people charged with the kidnap, murder and torture of 128 prisoners in the city of La Plata.

The detention centre also functioned as a maternity unit for pregnant prisoners who gave birth before being executed.

Tens of thousands of Argentines were kidnapped or killed by the military junta between 1976 and 1983.

La Cacha

The former police chief of the province of Buenos Aires, Miguel Etchecolatz, and ex-Interior Minister Jaime Lamont Smart were part of a group of 21 army, navy, police and prison service officers and members of the Buenos Aires provincial government, who ran the centre from 1976 to 1978.

Fifteen of them - including Etchecolatz and Smart- were sentenced to life, with four others receiving sentences ranging from 12 to 13 years.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Former Buenos Aires chief of police Miguel Etchecolatz (centre) was convicted for his involvement in the running of La Cacha

One suspect was cleared, while another had his sentence suspended for health reasons.

The judge said those convicted were accomplices in a genocide against mostly young, left-wing activists in Argentina between 1976 and 1978.

The detention centre was in an old radio station building on the outskirts of La Plata nicknamed La Cacha after a cartoon witch who abducted small children.

The men were accused of crimes ranging from murder, kidnapping and illegal detention to holding and hiding a child under 10 years of age.

Among the prisoners was the daughter of the head of a leading campaign group, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Their victims were mostly young, left-wing opponents of Argentina's military junta and also included the father of the present Argentine ambassador to Spain.

Electric shocks

The judges heard 130 witnesses over the 10 months of the trial.

Some of the survivors who testified during the trial said they were treated "like dogs".

"We were given sleeping pills, we were held hooded and naked at a warehouse," one of the witnesses, Alberto Alfio Cavalie, said during the trial.

"They used to tie a wire to our toes, it was connected to a machine that gave us electric shocks."

"We could hear the screams of the men and women that were being tortured. I weighed 30 kilos when I was able to leave the centre," he added.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Former prisoners and relatives of the missing have been eagerly awaiting the outcome of the trial

The trial was part of a continuing series of actions against Argentine officers and other officials associated with the military dictatorship.

Legal action began once democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, but President Raul Alfonsin brought an end to the trials in 1986, arguing the country needed to look to the future and not the past.

Three laws granting amnesty for crimes committed during the so-called Dirty War were passed in 1986 and 1987 but were later overturned in 2003.

Since then, a number of high-profile figures from the military regime have been convicted, including the de facto Presidents Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone.

General Videla had already been convicted of homicide, torture and kidnap amongst other crimes in 1985, but he was granted amnesty by President Carlos Menem in 1990.

About 250 convictions have been secured, including that of Alfredo Astiz, who in 2011 was given a life sentence for the part he played in infiltrating left-wing groups and betraying their members to the junta.