Argentine human rights activist Adolfo Perez Esquivel, 49, has been named the winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for having "shone a light in the darkness" of repression in Latin America through his work coordinating nonviolent rights movements, the prize committee announced yesterday in Oslo.

A well-known sculptor and former professor at the Argentine National School of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, Perez Esquivel in the early 1970s founded the Latin American Service for Peace and Justice, an organization designed to draw together, publish and facilitate the activities of a wide range of both religious and secular social justice agencies.

For that work, Perez Esquivel was arrested by military authorities in Argentina in April 1977, one year after they took over the government there. He was tortured and held for 15 months without charge until international pressure led to his release.

He was chosen for the $212,000 prize yesterday over other nominees who included President Carter, Pope John Paul II, British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington and Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.

Perez Esquivel's selection continues a trend of awarding the peace prize to human rights activists. Recent winners have been Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in 1975, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan of Northern Ireland's Peace People in 1976, London-based Amnesty International in 1977 and last year a Roman Catholic nun, Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

Perez Esquivel is well-known in Latin human rights circles, but his name has rarely been published in Argentina's Spanish-language press. The Argentine government yesterday made no comment on the prize announcement, and observers in Buenos Aires said they believed the military was trying to minimize the attention his selection would draw to human rights abuses there.

Although the evening newspapers in the Argentine capital headlined the announcement, they gave little detail of Perez Esquivel's activities and emphasized his talent as a sculpture.

Earlier in the day, he met with reporters in the humble two-room apartment that houses the Peace and Justice Service offices, in the San Telmo section of Buenos Aires. Looking bemused and shy, he absentmindedly stroked a white cat as he answered questions and said that "this prize is not for me, but for my organization and for the cause of human rights and justice in Latin America."

He said he accepted the award to behalf of the poor people of Latin America, for the peasants and workers of its countries.

Human rights activists in the United States yesterday hailed his selection.

Robert Cox, who as editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald in 1977 published news of Perez Esquivel's arrest, helped work to free him and was forced to leave Argentina this year, described the choice as "in the same tradition as Mother Theresa." t

Perez Esquivel, Cox said, is a "simple and meek man, the most humble person in the world," who had dedicated his life, at considerable personal cost, to social justice in Latin America.

According to a biography prepared in 1978, when previous prizewinners Corrigan and Williams nominated him for a Nobel peace award, Perez Esquivel began teaching sculpture in Buenos Aires in 1956. It was not until 1971 that he became involved in local groups that followed the teachings of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, who led that country's independence struggle through nonviolent protest.

What began as an attempt to use Gandhi's teachings to form artisan cooperatives soon developed into a comprehensive nonviolence movement and in 1972 Perez Esquivel helped organize a general protest against violence in Argentina.

In 1973, he founded a publication called Peace and Justice, which brought together Latin American writings on nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament and social justice issues. One year later, in a conference for strategic nonviolence held in Medellin, Colombia, attended by a continent-wide assortment of church, peasant, and professional human rights activists, Perez Esquivel was named Latin American coordinator for the Peace and Justice Service.

This period was the beginning of a still-continuing cycle of violence and military regimes in Latin America, beginning with the Chilean coup in 1973, followed by the Argentine military takeover in 1976 and, this summer, a military coup in Bolivia.

At the time, Perez Esquivel outlined the organization's goals as the establishment of regular contact between secular and non-secular human and civil rights groups, the interchange of information among them, mutual aid, and the channeling of their demands into common causes they could all share.

Although it is not officially connected to the Catholic Church the movement directed by Perez Esquivel includes many Catholic organizations in Latin countries and is supported by Brazil's liberal bishops, the activist church in Chile and a number of other Catholic-allied groups. It also includes peasant federations, union and university groups.

Perez Esquivel began a series of trips through Latin America to coordinate the movement's activities and it was while applying for a passport for one of these trips that he was arrested by Argentine police in April 1977.

The Argentine military had been in power little more than a year and, fighting against a highly organized network of leftist terrorists, it set about "cleaning up" the country through repressive means and arrested tens of thousands of people suspected of being subversives or of having subversive connections.

Thousands of those arrested disappeared without a trace. Perez Equivel was one of the lucky ones, since he had gone to the police station with a friend who sounded the alarm when he did not come out of the headquarters.

Despite international outcries, however, Perez Esquivel was held until June 1978 in La Plata prison. After he was freed he wrote privately of torture and the conditions in the jail, where he said he was sometimes kept in solitary confinement and was once beaten simply for laughing.