By MICHAEL WARREN 12/29/11 01:29 PM ET
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina’s last dictator was convicted Thursday of more crimes against humanity, this time getting 15 years in prison for setting up a secret torture center inside a hospital during the 1976 military coup.
Reynaldo Bignone personally oversaw the takeover of the Posadas de Haedo hospital in Buenos Aires province 35 years ago, leading soldiers in tanks and helicopters in search of medical personnel who allegedly treated leftist guerrillas. The military dismissed all the doctors and nurses, but kept some for questioning, including the hospital’s medical director. Eleven hospital staffers disappeared.
Bignone’s trial involved 21 cases of kidnappings and tortures, including two victims who were killed and made to disappear by a civilian group of thugs who called themselves the “SWAT” team and answered to the air force. The SWAT team set up shop inside the medical director’s home, interrogating the staff.
Some of those crimes are part of a second, upcoming trial involving the same hospital.
Bignone was the military junta’s social welfare delegate at the time. He later served as the junta’s president in 1982 and 1983, ordering the destruction of vast stores of evidence documenting illegal detentions and disappearances, and dictating a military amnesty before democracy returned to Argentina.
Bignone, now 85, already faces life in prison for other kidnappings and tortures in provincial Buenos Aires, including those committed in another torture center inside the Campo de Mayo military base. He’s also being tried along with former dictator Jorge Videla on charges of overseeing a systematic plan to steal the babies of pregnant detainees.
In his defense, Bignone has said that his actions were justified because Argentina was at war against armed leftist subversives.
Also convicted Thursday were SWAT team leader Luis Muina, 57; and a former air force brigadier, Hipolito Rafael Mariani, 85.
Prosecutors asked for 25-year sentences for all three, but Bignone received 15 years, Muina 13 and Mariani eight.
An official count determined that the regime killed some 13,000 people, but human rights groups estimate about 30,000 fell victim. Since Argentina’s democracy was restored in 1983, 268 people have been convicted of crimes against humanity and more than 800 others are being prosecuted, the government said.
Associated Press Writer Debora Rey contributed to this report.