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Argentine “Angel of Death” claims martyr status

"I was only following orders." Sound familiar?

A former agent for the Argentine navy known as “the Angel of Death” on Friday is claiming to be a victim of political persecution.

Capt. Alfredo Astiz is being tried for taking part in the disappearance, torture and murder of two French nuns, a journalist and three founders of a human rights group that he infiltrated while spying for the military dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983.

Astiz’s apparent betrayal of mothers who demanded that the junta account for their missing children was seen as so heartless by Argentines that he has become a poster boy for the junta’s “dirty war” against leftists and political opponents.

Astiz claims to have been a military officer following legal orders.  Taking advantage of his right to make a final statement after closing arguments, he complained of persecution by a government that “won’t forgive us for having successfully battled subversion.”

For nearly a year the 59 year old officer has been on trial with 17 other former military and police officials, on charges of crimes against humanity committed in the Navy Mechanics School, the most infamous detention and torture center used against leftists.

Of approximately 5,000 detainees who passed through the site, fewer than half survived.

That former military campus, now housing a museum preserving evidence of crimes against humanity, also contained a maternity ward where pregnant detainees were held until they gave birth and then were killed.  A separate trial for systematic baby thefts is under way in another courtroom.

Hundreds of former military and police officials are on trial around Argentina for abuses in the “dirty war” that killed 13,000 junta opponents, according to official records.

In his statement, Astiz accused President Cristina Fernandez of using unjust prosecutions for political gain. Her late husband and predecessor, President Nestor Kirchner, pushed for the trials after Argentina’s congress and Supreme Court overturned amnesties protecting junta veterans.

“This government doesn’t hesitate to take revenge against we who combatted terrorism. It seeks revenge through martyrdom and death in prison,” Astiz said.

Among other crimes, Astiz is on trial for the kidnapping and disappearance of French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, who were helping mothers organize a campaign to find children swept up by the junta.  He won their trust by claiming to be searching for a missing brother.

Astiz maintains that only a military tribunal has the right to adjudicate wartime actions.  He concluded his defense by passing a copy of Argentina’s constitution to the judges and asking them to share it with the Supreme Court.

Verdicts may be decided as soon as next week. If convicted, Astiz and most of his 17 co-defendants may be subject to penalties including life in prison.