( AP ) - A Catholic priest accused in a series of deaths and kidnappings during Argentina's Dirty War was convicted and sentenced to life in prison Tuesday.
Former police chaplain Christian von Wernich was found guilty of being a "co-participant" with police in seven homicides, 31 torture cases and 42 kidnappings during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.
Fireworks exploded outside a federal courthouse, and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group still trying to find out what happened to sons and daughters who disappeared during the dictatorship, cheered in a packed courtroom after Judge Carlos Rozanski announced the conviction and prison sentence.
"At last, at last! My God, it's a conviction!" said Vilma Ripoll, one of the Mothers in white headscarves who packed the chamber and spilled outside where hundreds jumped gleefully and beat drums, cheering the conviction. "We never thought we'd see this day; Justice has been served."
Von Wernich earlier in the day professed his innocence: "False testimony is of the devil because he is responsible for malice and is the father of evil and lies."
On Monday a prosecutor recommended a life prison sentence for von Wernich, 69, saying the priest had been linked by survivors to at least five clandestine detention camps in Buenos Aires province.
"Do people really understand what a clandestine torture center was? Do people know all the terror that went on in those places?" prosecutor Carlos Dulau said.
During months of trial, more than 70 witnesses testified and judges toured former torture centers at police stations with survivors. The dirty war officially left some 13,000 dead or missing, although human rights groups have put the toll at nearly 30,000.
Defense lawyer Juan Martin Cerolini argued Tuesday that von Wernich as a priest was obliged to visit police detention centers as part of his duties. But Cerolini insisted that role did not mean von Wernich had any part in a state crackdown.
Cerolini rejected survivor testimony suggesting von Wernich - who has worn a bulletproof vest over his clerical collar during the trial - conspired with police to help extract information from prisoners subject to torture under the guise of giving them spiritual assistance.
"Von Wernich never kidnapped, tortured or killed anyone," Cerolini said. He charged that the trial was unjust and that the government is failing to prosecute "terrorist acts" committed by former leftist rebels against state security forces.
Von Wernich said in his last words to the judges that he never violated the priestly prohibition against revealing information obtained in the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession.
"No priest of the Catholic church ... has ever violated this sacrament," he said.
Argentina's Catholic Church withheld comment on the case for the months of the trial and had no immediate statement following the verdict.
The von Wernich case is the biggest human rights trial in Argentina since former police chief Miguel Etchecolatz was convicted in September 2006 in the same La Plata courthouse. The trials came after the Supreme Court in 2005 annulled a pair of 1980s amnesty laws blocking prosecution of scores of former state security agents or their civilian allies.