By Claudia Gaillard and Helen Popper
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Three key figures from Argentina's "Dirty War" got hefty jail terms for the systematic theft of babies from political prisoners during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, an Argentine court ruled on Thursday.
The missing children - stolen from their parents and illegally adopted, often by military families - are one of the most painful legacies of the crackdown on leftist dissent in which rights groups say up to 30,000 people were killed.
Just over 100 of the children have discovered their true identities, but many families are still searching more than three decades later. Activists say there could be several hundred more individuals who do not know they were taken as babies from their parents.
"This is what we were seeking. We never wanted revenge, we were never hateful, we didn't ask for anything more than justice and justice has been done," an elderly man who identified himself as Francisco Madariaga's grandfather told local television.
The sentences in the case known as "The Systematic Plan" investigated the theft and illegal adoption of 34 of the stolen infants.
The 11 defendants included former junta leaders Jorge Rafael Videla, 86, and Reynaldo Bignone, 84, and ex-navy officer Jorge Acosta - known as The Tiger. They are already serving life sentences for previous human rights convictions.
Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison as the architect of the plan, while Acosta got 30 years and Bignone 15. The other defendants were also ordered to serve sentences of various lengths.
Videla, who is unrepentant about rights abuses committed by the state, described himself as a "political prisoner" during the trial and said any abductions that did take place were not part of a systematic plan.
"The women giving birth, who I respect as mothers, were militants who were active in the machine of terror," the former dictator said in his closing remarks. "Many used their unborn children as human shields."
Some of the stolen babies were born to women held at clandestine torture centers. Nurses have told how some babies were breast-fed by their mothers for several days, while others were taken away immediately.
There were no birth certificates, making the task of identifying them and reuniting them with their parents' relatives painstaking and lengthy.
Most of the 34 children in the case have been identified. They include pro-government city legislator Juan Cabandie, now 34, who was born at the infamous ESMA Naval Mechanics School when his 16-year-old mother Alicia was held there. He was adopted by a policeman and given a new name.
Another is leftist lawmaker Victoria Donda, whose parents were also kidnapped and held at the ESMA before disappearing without trace.
Others, like Clara Anahi Mariani, are still missing. As a three-month-old infant, she was kidnapped when state security services raided her home in 1976, killing her mother and fellow leftist activists in the central city of La Plata.
Her grandmother, Maria Isabel Chorobik de Mariani, has been searching for Clara Anahi ever since.
"A lot of girls come here to see if they are Clara Anahi," said Chorobik, who was knitting a sweater for her granddaughter when the raid took place at her son's house on a November night 36 years ago.
"At first, it was awful to find out that a girl who had the same birthday, the same name and a bunch of other things that made us think it was her didn't match up in the (DNA) test," she told Reuters Television. "My soul's become hardened."
Chorobik founded human rights group the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to search for the stolen babies of the "disappeared" children.
So far 102 have been identified, but campaigners say there could be several hundred more who are yet to discover their true identities.
When the dictatorship fell in 1983, courts convicted former members of the military junta of human rights crimes. They were later released under an amnesty.
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 of their friends were kidnapped and killed for political activities.
Since then, courts have convicted and sentenced a series of former military and police officers on human rights charges.
The convictions have brought some comfort to rights activists including Chorobik. But she says the nightmare of the stolen babies will haunt the victims and their families for years to come.
"Sometimes when newspapers report that a missing child has been found and they've met their family, people think it's a fairy tale," she said.
"But behind all this, there's a heavy burden on these kids. I'm sure Clara Anahi has buried in her memory the noise of that attack, the yelling and the gunshots and being separated from her mother."
(Additional reporting by Juliana Castilla; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Philip Barbara)