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Retired Argentinian army chiefs jailed for life over death of Roman Catholic bishop during Dirty War

Luciano Benjamin Menendez, 86, (above) and Luis Fernando Estrella, 82, were held responsible for the death of left-leaning cleric Enrique Angelelli

Two retired army officers face dying in prison after being convicted of the 1976 murder of a Roman Catholic bishop during Argentina’s junta rule.

Life sentences were given to former army General Luciano Benjamin Menendez, 86, and former Vice-Commodore Luis Fernando Estrella, 82, for the death of leftist Enrique Angelelli.

Angelelli was believed to have been assassinated at the beginning of the Dirty War after becoming active in labour unions and an outspoken campaigner for workers’ rights.

He died in a car crash while travelling with another former priest, Arturo Pinto.  For decades officials claimed that the incident was a tragic accident.

Angelelli’s political views were at odds with the military dictatorship that had just sprung to power as it sought to crack down on Socialist activity and the “threats” against its conservative, anti-Marxist rule.

Student protests resulted in kidnappings and disappearances, with as many as 30,000 people estimated missing or killed in total by human rights groups.

The latest rulings were passed in a court case in the northern city of La Rioja, the town for which Angelelli, 53, was bishop.

The cleric was a contemporary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio – the current Pope Francis – who is believed to have provided the court with two letters from the slain bishop that had been kept in the Vatican archives, according to news agency AFP.

The elderly military officials were indicted after Mr Pinto, the second priest in the ill-fated car journey, confirmed in 2010 that their vehicle had been forced off the road.

Angelelli’s murder came as part of a surge of deaths targeting members of the clergy that ran social missions. He was called a “martyr” in 2006 by the then Father Bergoglio, when a national day of mourning was dedicated to him 30 years after his death.

An article entitled “Justice for bishop Angelelli” has appeared on the Vatican’s official radio station website, which details how the murdered cleric knew he was a marked man.

General Luciano Benjamin Menendez had already been sentenced to life in jail for his part in assisting the then dictator, Jorge Videla, in orchestrating the crimes against humanity.