Argentina relives scandal of babies stolen from political prisoners

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The 9-millimetre gun and the letter found next to the lifeless body of Lt-Col Paul Alberto Ravone seemed to indicate suicide. Argentine human rights groups, however, suspect foul play as he is not the first key witness in a baby-theft trial to turn up dead.

In a series of cases gripping Argentina, men and women are on trial for stealing newborn babies from political prisoners during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Couples faithful to the regime illegally adopted the babies, supposedly raising them free of "subversive doctrines". Meanwhile, their mothers were "disappeared," in many cases thrown from planes into the sea, in what was known as the "Dirty War".

Ravone, 65 and retired, was due to testify on 3 March in a case involving the theft of twins born to a political dissident in a military hospital in 1976. Shortly before, the twins' parents had been arrested and joined the ranks of the 30,000 desaparecidos or disappeared.

Although the police suspect suicide, the human rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo expressed their doubts after Ravone's body was found on Monday. Estela de Carlotto, the leader of the group searching for their abducted grandchildren, claims that witnesses are being "eliminated."

On 10 December a key witness in a similar trial, Hector Febres, was found dead in his cell. The autopsy revealed cyanide poisoning as the cause of death. The Justice minister, Anibal Fernandez, says he has no doubt that Febres was murdered. The Dirty War is still being fought.

The discovery of Ravone's body follows two other incidents linked to the baby- theft trials, pushing the issue to the front pages of newspapers here. The first was a police raid on the home of Evelyn Vazquez, 30, who is possibly the daughter of disappeared parents. The police came looking for articles that might contain DNA.

The action followed Ms Vazquez's refusal to have a blood test. She says she will do nothing to implicate the couple that raised her – even if they do know about the possible fate of her biological parents and are accomplices to her alleged kidnapping. "I'll not be used as a weapon against my adoptive parents" she said.

Nine years ago her alleged biological grandparents started an investigation to find out if Ms Vasquez was the child stolen from their daughter. But Ms Vasquez feels no desire to see her adoptive parents jailed. "My parents have been my parents for the past 30 years and nothing will change that," she said in a radio interview on Tuesday.

DNA recovered during the raid will be used to determine her identity. If she is who the Grandmothers think she is, prosecutors will want to question her adoptive parents about how they came by a stolen baby.

The second case, that of Maria Eugenia Sampallo, could not be more different. Ms Sampallo is pressing charges against the couple who raised her. She always doubted her identity and submitted herself to a DNA test in 2000. The results produced a grandmother and an elder brother who had been looking for her all her life. Her parents, she found out, were union delegates, arrested in October 1977 and never seen again.

She accuses her adoptive parents of kidnap, deceit and falsifying her birth certificate. The slow wheels of justice in Argentina have delayed the trial until now.

Last week Ms Sampallo testified about her childhood. "At first they told me my parents had died in a car crash," she said. "Later they changed their story... Gomez [the wife] refused to tell me who I was. That was the deal. If they said nothing they could keep me." Apart from the couple – Cristina Gomez and Osvaldo Rivas – there is a third accused. Enrique Berthier, a former soldier, is suspected of giving the baby to Mrs Gomez. He claims to have no knowledge of Ms Sampallo's background. All three could spend up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

According to the Grandmothers organisation at least 500 children were taken from their jailed mothers. Thanks to a DNA databank, 88 young people now know their biological mothers were tortured and killed and that the people they thought were their parents had lied to them. Cases like Ms Vazquez's are rare: most have cut all ties with their adoptive parents.