BUENOS AIRES - Two retired military officers were sentenced to life in prison Friday for the murder of a Catholic bishop during Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship.
Documents in the trial included two letters from the Vatican archives provided by Argentine-born Pope Francis. The slain cleric had written the letters and sent them to Rome just before his death denouncing the military regime's abuses.
Ex-general Luciano Menendez, 87, was found guilty of ordering the murder of Enrique Angelelli, bishop of the northwestern province of La Rioja, in August 1976. Retired commodore Luis Estrella was also found guilty in the case.
The convictions marked the first time that junta-era officials are found guilty in the killing of a high-ranking church cleric.
Guillermo Diaz Martinez, an attorney for a human rights group which was among plaintiffs in the case, declared the day "historic" because of the favorable verdict.
The military regime had claimed that Angelelli, then 53, was killed in a car accident.
Also traveling in the car was the bishop's aide, a priest named Esteban Pinto, who survived the accident and subsequently filed the lawsuit.
In one of the letters read in court, Angelelli wrote that the regime was creating "permanent obstacles" to their religious work.
Angelelli complained that he, priests and nuns "are humiliated, seized and frisked by police on orders from the army," the bishop wrote.
In another letter the bishop sent a day-by-day account of events surrounding the slaying of French priest Gabriel Longueville and Argentine priest Carlos Murias, both of whom had been kidnapped, tortured and executed on July 18, 1976 in La Rioja.
On the day of the accident Angelelli was returning from an event honoring the late Longueville and Murias, both known for their work with the poor in La Rioja.
The bishop's car flipped over after it was struck by another vehicle. Angelelli was then taken out of the damaged car, struck on the back of his neck, and his lifeless body dragged into the middle of the road and abandoned.
Pinto, the survivor, filed a case with the authorities over the crash. Regime officials claimed it was a mere road accident and closed the case.
In 1986, once democracy was restored in Argentina, the case was re-opened and the bishop's death was ruled a homicide. But the case was filed away when a blanket amnesty for regime crimes, not revoked until 2003, went into effect.
Menendez had earlier been found guilty in seven cases of human rights abuses and was already serving a life sentence.
Scores of Catholic priests and nuns were "disappeared," tortured and killed during the dictatorship years. The victims include two French nuns and the bishop of San Carlos Ponce de Leon.
In all, some 30,000 people, mostly regime opponents, were killed or went missing during the "Dirty War" waged against leftist activists, according to human rights groups.