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640 years for Argentine in Spain

By CNN's Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

Baltasar Garzon

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- A Spanish court has convicted a former Argentine naval officer of crimes against humanity, terrorism and torture under the former Argentine military government and sentenced him to 640 years in prison -- effectively jailing him for the rest of his life.

Human rights organizations hailed the case against Adolfo Scilingo, 58, the former officer, as a triumph for "universal justice," in which Spain, for the first time, tried and convicted a defendant for crimes against humanity committed in another country.

Scilingo showed no reaction as the 209-page verdict was read by the presiding judge of the three-judge panel at Spain's National Court in Madrid.

Scilingo can file an appeal to the Supreme Court of Spain. Under Spanish law, he would only serve 30 years in prison despite the length of the sentence.

Observers, including the relatives of many of the Argentine victims, packed courtroom in central Madrid.

"I'm happy," said Malou Cerutti, whose husband and father were taken from her home in the Mendoza province of Argentina and were never seen again. "I'm content it was Spain. This start a new era of universal justice."

In 1997, Scilingo came voluntarily to Spain -- where Judge Baltasar Garzon was investigating abuses of the Argentine regime -- and testified under oath that he participated in two so-called death flights, during which about 30 leftist political opponents of the junta were thrown alive from airplanes to their deaths below in the sea.

After the testimony, Garzon ordered his arrest on suspicion of human rights abuses.

Scilingo was sentenced to 21 years for each of the 30 victims of the death flights in addition to five years for kidnapping and five years for torture.

The court found that he was aware of the overall plan by Argentine military officials to abduct and kill political opponents. They further found he had participated in the campaign.

In 1995, Scilingo had also told Time magazine that he helped "disappear" suspected leftists by throwing them from planes into the ocean.

"They were unconscious. We stripped them, and when the flight commander gave the order, we opened the door and threw them out, naked, one by one," the magazine reported.

"That is the story, and nobody can deny it."

But Scilingo recanted that story long before the trial began last January. During the two-month proceedings, he again professed innocence.

However, the judge said the court was able to verify his initial claims by other evidence and that his convictions were based principally on his own statements.

At the outset of the trial Scilingo was uncooperative, slumping in his chair on the first day and refusing to answer the presiding judge's questions. But as the trial wore on, he began speaking vigorously to defend his innocence. He said he not taken part in the death flights, even as the taped 1997 testimony was played out in open court.

He also denied working at a notorious torture center in Buenos Aires, the Naval Mechanical School, during dates when atrocities were committed there against political opponents of the regime.

But witnesses during the trial identified Scilingo and incriminated him in the crimes.

The Argentine truth commission's 1984 report named 8,961 people who "disappeared" under the military rule.

But human rights groups estimate up to 30,000 people were killed or "disappeared" in the Argentine military's war against leftist guerrillas and their sympathizers. Many were tortured, drugged and thrown from aircraft into the River Plate or the Atlantic Ocean.

Although some high-level officials were criminally prosecuted in Argentina in the 1980s for these abuses, the country's amnesty laws protected most of the military. Those who were convicted were pardoned by then-President Carlos Menem in 1989 and 1990.

Judge Garzon was not the trial judge for Scilingo and was not present in court on Tuesday. He is currently on leave from the court, and is in New York to study and research terrorism.

As part of Garzon's broad-ranging human rights investigations in South America, he also unsuccessfully sought extradition to Spain of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, after ordering Pinochet's arrest in London in 1998. Pinochet eluded Spanish justice but is still facing legal challenges back home in Chile.

Spain took on the case against Scilingo -- and the South American human rights investigations -- because Spaniards were among the victims of the Argentinian military rule.

Garzon has indicted about 40 other former Argentine officers for their alleged roles in the abuses, but only one other besides Scilingo is currently in Spanish custody. He is Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, who was extradited from Mexico to Spain in 2003 and is also awaiting trial for human rights abuses.

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