A court in La Rioja on Friday found former Army chief, general César Milani, not guilty of crimes against humanity, acquitting him of all charges.
Judges Julián Falcucci, Jaime Díaz Gavier and Enrique Lilljedahl, of the Oral Court of La Rioja, ordered his immediate release from custody.
The trial centred around Milani’s alleged participation in a 1977 operation that led to the kidnap and torture of father and son dissidents Pedro and Ramón Olivera.
In total, 11 defendants were in the dock. Four were acquitted of charges and six were sentenced to sentences between three-and-a-half years and 10 years in prison for aggravated homicide, carrying out an illegal search, illegitimate deprivation of liberty and torture.
In his final statements before sentencing on Friday morning, the retired general – who served as commander of the Army during the government of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – had expressed confidence that he would be absolved.
Denouncing the allegations against him "lies and slander," Milani claimed he was the victim of "an unprecedented political, media and judicial campaign" and reiterated his "absolute innocence."
“I firmly believe in God and that one day he will judge us all. For this I feel calm, proudly wearing the uniform of the fatherland. I am confident I will be helped by truth and reason,” Milani, 64, declared. “I hope that starting today the court will reach a verdict of 'not guilty,' clear my good name and that of my family who have always supported me."
"I am still standing, they will not break me," he added. "I still believe in a great, fair, free and sovereign homeland."
The oral public hearing in the northwestern province dealt with crimes committed during the days of Argentina’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship. At the time of the alleged crimes, Milani – who retired from the Armed Forces in 2015 – was a young second lieutenant, serving in Battalion 141 of La Rioja.
When the trial began in May, Milani denied all the charges against him, which were officially recorded as the illegitimate deprivation of liberty, carrying out an illegal search, the imposition of aggravated torture and illicit association.
On Friday, the ex-Army chief was acquitted by majority decision of the deprivation of liberty and illegal search charges involving Pedro Olivera, in a ruling carrying the signatures of Díaz Gavier and Falcucci. The three judges unanimously cleared him of the torture of both Pedro and Ramón Olivera and of illicit association charges,
Details of the rulings will given at a later hearing, due September 9.
The prosecution had requested the former Army chief – who wore his military uniform during the trial – be handed 18 years in prison for the alleged crimes. Lawyers for the family had requested 20 years behind bars.
The court's findings are likely to spark reaction from human rights organisations and across the political spectrum, given that Milani was a controversial figure during the Kirchner years. His rise to head command of the Armed Forces met with anger from many non-governmental organisations at the time, creating tension between the human rights community and then-president Fernández de Kirchner.
Milani retired from the Army in June 2015 and two years later he was arrested for his alleged involvement in these two kidnappings. Since then he has been remanded in custody, held under pre-trial detention at the Campo de Mayo military headquarters outside of the capital.
Ramón Olivera, who was freed during the dictatorship, first denounced Milani in 1984 before the Provincial Human Rights Commission of La Rioja, though the case did not progress until he reconfirmed those statements before the courts in 2013.
Pedro Olivera, who died in 1999, suffered a stroke while being tortured. He survived, despite having been abandoned by his captors after his kidnapping.
The trial was the first time the ex-Army chief found himself in the dock accused of crimes against humanity.
The former Army chief is also accused of the forced disappearance of soldier Alberto Ledo in 1976, for which he is facing a separate trial, due to begin in September. He also faces charges of illicit enrichment, dating back to his time leading the Army.
Speaking after the ruling, Graciela Ledo, the sister of the Alberto Ledo, criticised the court.
"We no longer have confidence in the Justice system of this country," she told Radio Con Vos. "Kirchnerismo has influence over the Judiciary."