Testimony in the trial of nine former military rulers for massive human rights violations has ended in much the same way it began 17 weeks ago -- with a tale of kidnaping, torture and anonymous death.
In keeping with the dramatic tenor that marked the more than 500 hours of public testimony, Wednesday's final session ended with accounts of the occupation of a hospital by Argentine security forces following a March 1976 coup, the beginning of nearly eight years of military rule.
According to testimony this week, dozens of staff members at Posadas hospital in Buenos Aires, eight of whom are still missing, were beaten, harassed and abducted by security forces, who, witnesses said, later installed a clandestine torture center within the clinic.
The last witness, Zulema Dina Chester, related how her father, a doctor at the clinic, was abducted from their home in November 1976 by armed men and later killed. The witness, who was 12 at the time of the raid, said the intruders had beaten and sexually abused her.
The testimony was in keeping with the tales of horror heard from the witness stand throughout the trial, the first time a democratically elected government in Latin America has attempted to punish its military predecessors for human rights violations.
More than 9,000 people, including scores of pregnant women, elderly people and children, vanished and are presumed dead after being abducted during the military crackdown on leftist guerrillas and suspected sympathizers. The nine defendants, former members of three ruling juntas, are charged with a wide range of offenses, including murder, torture, illegal search and robbery.
The public trial has served as a powerful, if painful lesson for Argentina, human rights activists and others said
"The trial has helped end the climate of fear that hung over from the military period," said Emilio Mignone, a well-known rights activist. "The fact that hundreds of people came forward to give testimony has provided a catharsis, with an enormous impact on the public's awareness."
Mignone and others said the highly publicized trial has shored up support for Argentina's 19-month-old experiment in democratic rule. They said that, following the military's retreat from power, many people remained confused about what really had happened during those years.
"The years of abuse of authority have made people distrust authority, no matter who is exercising it," said assistant prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo.
During the course of the trial, the six-judge federal court heard testimony relating cases of mass executions of political dissidents, torture and military infighting whose casualties were publicly attributed to leftist terrorists.
In addition to the hundreds of witnesses called before the tribunal, documents and transcripts from about 8,000 other court cases, 3,000 diplomatic requests and 500 inquiries to the Argentine diplomatic mission in Geneva were placed in evidence by the prosecutor's office.
"In Argentina it was always said that there was no proof with which to convict the military men who are guilty," said Moreno Ocampo. "What we have done is provide mountains and mountains of proof -- more than we know what to do with."
Moreno Ocampo said some new revelations will be added in evidence during the prosecution's oral summation next month.
In contrast, some defense lawyers have complained privately that potential evidence that would mitigate their clients' guilt could not be submitted because there was a generalized presumption that such information had been obtained through torture.
"And of course much of it probably was," said one lawyer ruefully.
Wednesday the court ordered the nine defendants to appear before the bench when the summations are made. So far the once omnipotent generals, who are in jail, have chosen to stay away from the trial, having testified earlier behind closed doors. Five of the accused, including former presidents Jorge Videla and Roberto Viola, both retired generals, face maximum sentences of life in prison if convicted. The four other junta members would face lesser sentences.
Upon taking office in December 1983 President Raul Alfonsin ordered the courts-martial of the nine members of the military juntas that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1982, for massive rights violations, including mass murder.
When the military's highest tribunal refused to move against the accused last year, Alfonsin was forced to go ahead with a civil trial.
About 900 witnesses have testified at the trial, which began April 22. Following Wednesday's session, the court adjourned until Sept. 5, when federal prosecutor Julio Strassera will begin his three-day summation. Verdicts are expected in December.
For assistant prosecutor Moreno Ocampo, the most memorable testimony of the trial was that of a maid, who after most of the family she worked for had been kidnaped, hid in a doghouse in an upstairs patio when intruders broke into the home.
"When she tried to flee down the stairs, she too was grabbed," he recalled. "Later, in the courtroom, she said that when she fled she had been hoping to call the police. But when her captors took her outside, she found they had come in four squad cars.
"When the police are the repressers, where does a citizen go to complain?" he asked.