Dirty War Orphan Wins Kidnapping Suit

In Argentina on Friday, a child of dissidents successfully sued her adoptive parents for kidnapping and complicity in her parents' disappearance during the Dirty War of the 1970s. It's the first such case brought by an orphan of the Dirty War to make it to Argentina's criminal courts.

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Now, to Argentina and a crime that dates back to that country's brutal military dictatorship of the 1970s. A three-judge tribunal last night convicted a man and his ex-wife of illegally adopting a child born 30 years ago by changing and hiding her true identity. An ex-army officer was sentenced to ten years for handing the infant to the couple.

This case came about because the woman herself, now 30, filed suit. Under Argentine law an individual can bring charges in criminal court.

From Buenos Aires, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on this landmark case.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Maria Eugenia Barragan is one of an estimated 500 people snatched from their biological parents during the dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Maria is the first to bring her adoptive parents to court.

(Soundbite of applause)

MCCARTHY: Following the ruling, wellwishers greeted Maria. There was applause but no euphoria. The young woman, whose smile and dark-rimmed glasses are a sort of signature, wanted the couple who had snatched her to be put away for 25 years. 60-year-old Cristina Gomez Pinto got seven years; the ex-husband, 64-year-old Osvaldo Rivas, drew eight years.

Rosa de Roisinblit is the vice president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights group that has reunited stolen children with their real families using DNA testing. She expressed the attitude of many on hand for the verdict.

Ms. ROSA DE ROISINBLIT (Vice President, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: I'm anguished and disappointed. I thought there would be a greater sentence because seven to eight years is too little for this crime, she says. In the United States and other countries child kidnapping is almost akin to murder, she said, adding, there's nothing like that here.

Maria was just three months old when the defendant couple adopted her with falsified documents, including a birth certificate forged by a military doctor. It was an unhappy home filled with fighting and rancor. Maria told the court, my mother said that I was ungrateful for what they had done for me, and that if not for them I would have been tossed in the gutter.

In the 1990s, Maria ended her relationship with the couple who had given her conflicting stories about her birth mother - a maid who died in a car crash in one version; a stewardess in another. In 2001, DNA testing proved her true identity: the daughter of two political prisoners presumed dead.

Her parents had been trade unionists and members of the Marxist Leninist Party. In her only public statement Monday she declared, our mothers and fathers did not abandon us.

Ms. MARIA EUGENIA BARRAGAN (Orphan of Dirty War): (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: Many of them were murdered or disappeared for political reasons. They endured the most terrible conditions in their captivity. We lived through them, she said. Only by force was the military able to separate us, Maria said.

Human rights groups estimate 500 newborns were seized in a network of torture and detention centers run by the military dictatorship.

Ms. BARRAGAN: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: Some 5,000 political prisoners were detained here in the Navy's engineering school, a leafy complex on the northern edge of Buenos Aires. It's now a museum.

Sabrina Olsalski(ph) took our tour to the dank basement of the officer's headquarters.

Ms. SABRINA OLSALSKI (Tour Guide): This place, the basement, was used as a torture center where the torture chambers used to be. And it was a place of slavery work.

MCCARTHY: Who lived and who died was totally arbitrary, she says. We make our way to the third floor, the site of the maternity ward.

So, this is the maternity ward?

Ms. OLSALSKI: Mm-hmm.

MCCARTHY: The clandestine maternity ward they ran.

Ms. OLSALSKI: This is the clandestine maternity, exactly. We estimate that about 35 children were born here, most of them still living under a false identity.

MCCARTHY: Eighty-eight children born to dissidents in Argentina have recovered their identities and been reunited with their families. Five of them were born here at the naval school.

Among the juntas that held sway over South America in the 1970s and 80s, Argentina's was considered among the most brutal - kidnapping and killing an estimated 30,000 people. The counsel for Maria Barragan has argued that the offenses in this case amount to crimes against humanity.

The court last night was silent on that but Barragan's attorney, Tomas Quintana, said the verdict is still a clear condemnation of those who trafficked in stolen children.

Mr. TOMAS QUINTANA (Attorney for Maria Barragan): The fact that the three accused have been convicted for these crimes is very important. It's a message.

MCCARTHY: Maria Barragan says she hopes her case will convince more young men and women with doubts about their identity to come forward, and, she says, persuade society to reject the term adoptive parents. They are not parents, she said, they are appropriators.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Buenos Aires.

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