Argentina tries doctors for delivering babies then helping to steal them for former regime

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - Two doctors and a midwife went on trial in Argentina on Wednesday accused of delivering political prisoners' babies and helping the country's former military regime steal them from their parents.

"It's a very important trial because it will judge the complicity of doctors and midwives who were directly responsible for these crimes against humanity," said 36-year-old Francisco Madariaga, one of an estimated 500 children taken from their mothers at birth during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Madariaga was born in a secret maternity ward at a military hospital in Buenos Aires, delivered by midwife Luisa Yolanda Arroche, who is charged with falsifying his birth certificate and abetting his kidnapping.

Arroche, now 86 years old, is standing trial with doctors Norberto Bianco and Raul Martin, who are both also in their 80s.

Prosecutors accuse them of "providing essential assistance" to hide the babies' identity and hand them over to regime-approved families who raised them as their own.

They are charged alongside former military officer Santiago Omar Riveros, the commander of the Campo de Mayo base where Madariaga and dozens like him were born, and former dictator Reynaldo Bignone, both already serving time for crimes against humanity.

"With this trial we'll be able to learn what they did with our mothers the day after we were born, know that there will be a punishment and justice will triumph because we are the living proof of the crime," said Madariaga, who learned his real identity in 2010 and was able to find his biological father.

His mother, Silvia Quintela, a leftist militant who was seven months pregnant when she was jailed by the military regime at age 24, has never been found.

An estimated 30,000 people were killed or abducted and presumed killed during the regime's "dirty war" against leftist opponents.

Pregnant prisoners were often forced to give birth blindfolded and handcuffed. Their babies were then taken away and often given to military or police families, sometimes even their parents' killers.

Of the 500 babies stolen from their captive mothers, 115 have been found through genetic testing and the efforts of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a rights group founded by women fighting to locate their stolen grandchildren. The group's president, Estella Carlotto, found her long-lost grandson last month after 36 years.

A lawyer for the Grandmothers said the trial, which deals with the cases of nine stolen babies, would only scratch the surface.

"There were many more cases involving at least 12 (health) professionals at Campo de Mayo alone," said attorney Alan Iud. "Until now we have tried those who organised the systematic plan to steal babies and those who took in those babes. But these (defendants) were a fundamental link enabling all of that to be carried out."

Laura Catalina de Santis Ovando, whose kidnapping is also at the centre of the case, said the trial was "another step toward having some kind of peace."

"Here are the people who were in contact with my mother when I was born. They saw her, they touched her," she said, her voice trembling. "They are directly responsible."

Former dictators Bignone and Jorge Videla, who has since died, were sentenced in 2012 to 15 years and 50 years in prison, respectively, over the regime's theft of babies.