Argentine kidnappings - leaders in court
Buenos Aires - Two former Argentine dictators appeared in court on Monday for the first time to face charges over the kidnapping of about 500 babies decades ago, seized from their mothers in secret maternity units minutes after birth.
Some 80 people are expected to testify about how babies were taken from political opponents and others, in a systematic plan ordered by the highest levels of Argentina's brutal military dictatorship from 1976-1983.
Former rulers Jorge Videla, who headed a military junta from 1976 to 1981, and the last dictator of the military regime, Reynaldo Bignone (1982-1983), will appear before the court alongside six other former military leaders for the first hearing in a trial expected to last until the end of the year.
Outside the court steps, protesters from the rights group HIJOS (children) waved flags and chanted for justice on behalf of the detained and disappeared.
Dropped alive from planes
"We were the regime's war spoils," said 33-year-old Leonardo Fossati, who will be testifying at the trial.
His parents, both disappeared, were both militants in the Union of High School Students of La Plata and the Peronist Youth at the time of their abduction in 1977, when his mother was pregnant.
"I was born at a police station. A family of good faith adopted me," Fossati told AFP, saying he was thankful that a rights group had helped him find his true family and identity.
Women who were dissidents or otherwise found themselves in the junta's wrath were interned at wards in the heart of torture centres, including the emblematic Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics (Esma).
The women were kept alive during their pregnancies, only to be summarily killed after giving birth, often dropped alive from military planes into the sea.
Their babies were handed to a military official or an officer's relative.
About 500 babies were stolen during the dictatorship, according to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organisation which has so far been able to track down and identify 102 of them.
Several of those who discovered their true identity have become politicians or human rights activists.
Victoria Donda, 34, published a book last year on her horrific and complex experience as a "stolen child of the Argentine dictatorship".
The daughter of "Cori" (Hilda Perez) and "Cabo" (Jose Donda), two guerrilla fighters killed at Esma, Victoria was raised by Juan Antonio Azic.
Azic is among the seven accused who will appear before a judge on Monday.
In a tragic twist, her birth uncle Adolfo Donda, also a former navy officer, is accused of having ordered the kidnapping and killing of his own brother and sister-in-law.
He even snatched Victoria's older sister, Daniela.
30 000 people killed
The eight accused military officers are accused of being responsible for 34 cases of kidnapping and falsifying children's identities.
"We have waited 30 years to get justice and see them in jail," said Chela Fontana, whose daughter Liliana, was kidnapped by a commando when she was two months pregnant.
Videla, 83, was sentenced to solitary confinement for life during a 1985 trial against the junta, only to receive amnesty five years later from ex-president Carlos Menem.
The amnesties were annulled during the 2003-2007 presidency of late former leader Nestor Kirchner, paving the way for the latest trials.
Bignone, 83, was appointed president during the 1982 Falklands War against Britain. He handed the reins of power over to Social Democrat Raul Alfonsin when Argentina returned to democracy.
About 5 000 people were detained and tortured at Esma. Barely a hundred of them survived.
In all, some 30 000 people were killed under the dictatorship, according to rights groups.