BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - A court sentenced a former navy spy known as "the Angel of Death" and 11 other former Argentine military and police officers to life in prison Wednesday for crimes against humanity committed during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.
Alfredo Astiz, a 59-year-old ex-navy captain, became notorious for his infiltration and betrayal of activists and was viewed by many Argentines as the symbol of the junta's crimes. He was accused of participating in the kidnapping, torture and murder of two French nuns, a journalist and three founders of a human rights group.
The crimes alleged against all the defendants included 86 cases of kidnapping, torture and murder of leftist dissidents committed at the Navy Mechanics School, one of the military junta's principal torture centers used to crush the threat of armed revolution. About 5,000 detainees passed through the school. Fewer than half survived.
Closing out a trial that began in December 2009, four other defendants were sentenced to between 18 and 25 years in prison, while two others were absolved. Former Adm. Emilio Masserta, who commanded the torture center, was not included among the defendants because of poor health and died last November.
The verdicts were applauded by human rights activists and families of the victims who watched the verdict on a big screen television.
"Ole, ole, they will meet the fate of the Nazis. Wherever they go, we will find them," family members chanted.
The Navy Mechanics School, a leafy former military campus, is now home to a museum dedicated to preserving evidence of crimes against humanity.
The grounds also used to house a maternity ward where pregnant detainees were held until they gave birth and then were made to "disappear." A separate trial alleging that systematic baby thefts were part of the junta's anti-subversion strategy is under way in another courtroom.
Survivors and relatives of victims from the nation's "dirty war" against leftist guerrillas and political opponents called it a "historic day."
Astiz was charged in the disappearances of French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet as well Azucena Villaflor, a founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group that campaigned to find people "disappeared" by the junta. The three were among detainees who were tortured at the mechanics school and then thrown into the sea from navy aircraft.
The former spy also was convicted in the kidnapping and disappearing of writer Rodolfo Walsh, who along with Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Maquez founded the Prensa Latina news agency after the Cuban revolution. Walsh also created the Clandestine News Agency during Argentina's dictatorship to get around official censors.
Astiz has accused President Cristina Fernandez of promoting unjust and illegitimate prosecutions for her own political gain. Her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner, encouraged the trials after Argentina's Congress and Supreme Court removed amnesties that had protected junta veterans.
"This government doesn't hesitate in its revenge against we people who combatted terrorism," Astiz said. "It seeks revenge through martyrdom and death in prison."
In neighboring Uruguay, lawmakers planned to vote Wednesday to revoke an amnesty law that protected dozens of former officials who served in that country's 1973-1985 dictatorship from human rights prosecutions.
The two countries are among several Latin American nations still struggling to come to terms with Cold War dictatorships in which regimes routinely tortured, killed or "disappeared" suspected opponents. Most of those dictatorships ended nearly three decades ago.
Uruguay's Chamber of Deputies was debating the measure late Wednesday, a day after it was narrowly approved by the Senate in a 16-15 vote. Deputies were expected to pass the measure.
The Inter-American Human Rights court has demanded that Uruguay lift impediments to prosecuting dictatorship-era crimes, but the proposal has divided the politically moderate country, where memories of the military government remain fresh.
Congressional allies of President Jose Mujica, who was a leftist Tupamaro guerrilla leader during the junta era, tried but failed to revoke the amnesty law in May.
The opposition has said the measure violates the constitution and notes the amnesty was approved by Uruguayans in two national referendums, first in 1989 and then in 2009.
Nationalist Sen. Jorge Saravia called Tuesday's senate vote "a coup d'etat" that ignored the decision of citizens in the two plebiscites.
Uruguay's Congress approved the military amnesty in 1986, after leftist guerrillas who had fought the government received amnesties.
Members of Uruguay's armed forces have threatened to seek prosecution of former Tupamaro guerrillas if legislators strike down the military amnesty.