The ruling was the first time a group of former officials had been convicted together [AFP]

A former member of Argentina's military government has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to murder opponents of the regime during the country's so-called dirty war between 1976 and 1983.

Cristino Nicolaides, an ex-army commander, is the highest-ranking official to be convicted of human rights crimes since amnesty laws and pardons relating to the "dirty war" period were removed in 2003.

Nicolaides was found guilty by a court in Buenos Aires on Tuesday along with seven other military and police officials who were convicted on a range of charges relating to the abduction, torture and disappearance of opponents.

All of the men were sentenced to prison terms of between 20 and 25 years.

Human rights organisations estimate as many as 30,000 people were killed or went missing during the military's crackdown on perceived dissent, although only 13,000 people are officially listed.

"Justice has been served," said Eduardo Luis Duhalde, Argentina’s human rights minister, said.

'Killing machine'

Duhalde praised the court's decision to punish officers for unleashing what he described as a "killing machine" in an operation in 1980.

Prosecutors said members of the left-wing guerrilla group Montoneros had secretly entered Argentina to organise a "counteroffensive" against the government, but several were swiftly captured and at least five tortured and executed at an army base northwest of Buenos Aires.

"I'm pleased with this sentence and everything that was proved in this trial," Duhalde said.

Rights activists and relatives of victims applauded the verdict after it was read aloud, and some yelled insults at the men as they filed out of the courtroom

The unexpected ruling comes just a week after Cristina Fernandez, Argentina's new president, took power, promising to speed up the judicial system to clear a backlog of human rights cases.

Julio Simon was the first man to be convicted
since amnesty laws were overturned [AFP]
Among those sentenced with Nicolaides were former army officers Jorge Arias Duval, Juan Carlos Gualco, Carlos Fontana, Pascual Guerrieri, Santiago Hoya, Walter Roldan and former police officer Julio Simon.

Nicolaides, Arias Duval and Hoya each received a 25-year sentence, while Gualco, Roldan and Simon got 23 years each.

Fonta was ordered to serve 21 years in prison, and Guerrieri, 20 years.

Lawyers for the 80-year-old Nicolaides said illness kept him from attending the final court session, but the others were present.

Given the chance to make last words in his defence, Guerrieri declared himself "completely innocent".

Amnesty revoked

"We were soldiers," he told the judge. "We brought order, not repression, to this society. Don't let this be about revenge."

The ruling marked the first time that a group of former ranking officers were convicted together since amnesty laws from the 1980s were revoked in June 2005 by the supreme court.

The laws had protected suspected human rights violators from prosecution for decades.

In 1990 Carlos Menem, the then president, pardoned nine military leaders convicted on charges of abduction, torture and execution. Lower-ranking officers also received pardons.

Last year, the first conviction since the laws were overturned was delivered against Simon, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for human rights abuses linked to the disappearance of a married couple in 1978.

Earlier this year two police officers and a Roman Catholic priest who served as police chaplain – were handed life sentences for committing crimes against humanity.

A former coastguard officer died last week, just four days before he was to face a verdict on decades-old torture charges.

Investigators found it likely that he had been killed by cyanide and arrested his wife and two children for questioning.

Source: Agencies