Buenos Aires (AFP) - An Argentine court jailed 15 South American ex-military officers for conspiring to torture and kill leftist dissidents during a US-backed crackdown by the region's dictatorships in the 1970s and '80s.
The court was the first to try atrocities committed under Operation Condor, a coordinated plan of repression launched at the height of the Cold War by the military regimes of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
It sentenced former Argentine dictator Reynaldo Bignone to 20 years and retired Uruguayan colonel Manuel Cordero -- the only non-Argentine national in the dock -- to 25 years.
Fifteen of the 18 defendants were convicted of criminal conspiracy for their role in the plan, which is blamed for 105 executions and kidnappings.
The sentences ranged from eight to 25 years.
Applause erupted when the sentence was read out in the Buenos Aires court, where former abductees and victims' relatives had gathered for the outcome of the three-year trial.
Paraguayan national Lidia Cabrera de Franco, who was abducted with her husband and two young daughters in Argentina in 1977 and handed over to her home country -- which detained her in secret for 11 months -- said she felt she owed a debt to those killed under the plan.
Cabrera, 67, testified at the trial about three Argentines and two Uruguayans who were detained with her and never seen again.
She said she overheard a policeman say they were to be thrown from an airplane.
"Giving testimony is important for the victims," she told AFP. "It is a debt owed to them."
Prosecutors based their case partly on declassified US intelligence documents showing how the South American regimes worked together to track down political exiles in neighboring countries and kill them or have them sent back to their home countries.
The various regimes communicated with each other using a telex system dubbed "Condortel." Officers were trained to use it at the infamous School of the Americas in Panama, a US training center that drilled repressive Latin American regimes in counter-insurgency tactics.
- Stolen baby sees justice -
The cases included harrowing stories such as that of Maria Garcia and Marcelo Gelman. The militant anti-regime couple were arrested in Argentina on August 24, 1976 and taken to an auto workshop that had been transformed into a torture chamber.
Gelman was killed. Garcia, who was seven months pregnant at the time, was transferred to her native Uruguay. Her family still does not know exactly what happened to her.
Garcia's daughter, Macarena, was born in captivity and given to a family of regime sympathizers to raise. She learned her real identity only through blood testing in 2000, when she was 23 years old.
Macarena Gelman was present in court on Friday and welcomed the verdict.
"It's a satisfactory sentence," she said. "(Cordero) is the first Uruguayan to be convicted in my mother's case."
"It makes me wonder, when will this happen in Uruguay?"
Uruguay has a controversial amnesty for crimes committed under the dictatorship (1973-1985), although some key regime figures have been prosecuted via loopholes.
Cordero was extradited from Brazil, which also has an amnesty for its own 1964-1985 military regime.
Prosecutors in the case sought numerous other suspects outside Argentina, but their extradition requests were refused.
- 'Coordinated structure for repression' -
Hundreds of army officers and police have been tried in Argentina for atrocities carried out under the country's 1976 to 1983 dictatorship.
However, Operation Condor itself had never been the subject of a trial until the current case opened in February 2013.
"It's the first verdict on Operation Condor as a coordinated structure for repression," said Gaston Chillier, head of Argentine rights group CELS.
Bignone, who ruled Argentina from 1982 to 1983, is now 88 years old and already serving a 15-year sentence for the theft of babies born to political prisoners during the seven-year dictatorship.
Jorge Videla, who ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1981, also faced charges, but died in prison in 2013 at age 87.
He was serving sentences for the abduction of babies and killing of dissidents.