By Helen Popper and Karina Grazina
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Alfredo Astiz, Argentina's infamous "Blond Angel of Death," and 11 other death squad members from the 1970s were jailed for life on Wednesday in one of the country's biggest human rights cases.
Astiz, nicknamed for his cherubic looks, stood trial with other former officials accused of horrific crimes at the ESMA Naval Mechanics School, where about 5,000 dissidents were held and tortured during the 1976-1983 "Dirty War" dictatorship. Few of the captives survived.
Marking the end of a 22-month trial in which 79 survivors gave evidence, 12 defendants were sentenced to life while four others were punished with between 18 and 25 years in jail.
Hundreds of people gathered on the street outside the packed courtroom, some holding up photographs of the victims of the men inside. The crowd, bundled up against a chilly Buenos Aires night, applauded at the reading out of each sentence.
"We can finally be at peace, knowing that justice has been done," a woman in the crowd told local television.
Former navy captain Astiz boasted of his dictatorship-era crimes in a magazine interview in 1998, saying he was "the best-trained man in Argentina to kill journalists and politicians."
"I'm not sorry for anything," Astiz said in the interview.
He infiltrated human rights groups whose members were later kidnapped and was convicted in absentia in Europe of killing two French nuns held at the ESMA.
"Son of a bitch!" people in the crowd yelled when Astiz's sentence was pronounced by the judge inside. When the proceedings were over, the people outside started dancing to live folk music, some weeping and hugging each other.
Defendants included Jorge Acosta, known as "The Tiger," who said during the two-year trial that "human rights violations are unavoidable during a war."
He was one of the 12 sentenced to life in prison.
"DISAPPEARED" IN DIRTY WAR
Only about 200 people are known to have survived from the estimated 5,000 prisoners held in the ESMA. Many of the rest were drugged and dumped out of airplanes into the nearby River Plate in a gruesome weekly ritual.
Death squads drove up to ESMA -- the best known of hundreds of clandestine prisons used by the dictatorship -- in daylight and unloaded blindfolded prisoners from their car trunks.
While prisoners were held, some for hours, others for years, under the eaves of the ESMA officers' residence, officers went on living, eating, studying and socializing in the floors below.
Human rights groups say Argentina's military government killed up to 30,000 people during the six-year dictatorship. Most of them disappeared and their bodies were never found.
When the dictatorship fell in 1983, courts convicted former members of the military junta of human rights crimes, but they were later released under an amnesty.
Astiz tried to lead a normal life and was photographed in Buenos Aires nightclubs or at vacation spots. But he became a symbol of the abuses by the dictatorship and, on several occasions, people attacked him in public.
In 2005, Argentina's Supreme Court struck down the amnesty at the urging of then-President Nestor Kirchner, late husband of current President Cristina Fernandez.
The Kirchners met as student activists in the 1970s and several friends were kidnapped and killed during for their political activities.
Since then, courts have convicted and sentenced a series of former military officers on human rights charges.
The ESMA was opened to the public as a human rights memorial in 2007.
(Writing by Helen Popper and Hugh Bronstein; editing by Todd Eastham)