Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla denied Tuesday that his government stole babies from women who were detained and then executed during the country's 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Videla, 86, was defiant as he testified during a trial on charges that his administration stole 34 babies from their mothers as they were held in torture centers, going so far as to blame the women.

"If the removal of an underage minor took place, it was not because of an implicit order," said the former strongman.

Videla continued: "All the pregnant ones referred to in the suit and by prosecutors were active militants of a mechanism of terror and many of them used their child embryos as human shields when they operated as fighters."

Human rights groups estimate that up to 30,000 people were killed in a government-sponsored crackdown on leftist dissidents during the so-called Dirty War. Official estimates put the number at 13,000 — many of them women, whose babies were kidnapped and adopted by army families or allies of the regime and illegally registered.

Crime against humanity

The activist group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo says some 500 children were born while their mothers were in captivity. The group has helped 106 of them reunite with their biological families. The kidnapping of babies from mothers in captivity is considered a crime against humanity.  

Videla led the military junta from 1976 to 1981, following a coup that he staged with other military officials. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for kidnapping, torture and murder.  

Prosecutors are asking for a 50-year prison sentence for Videla, who was sentenced to a second life sentence in 2011 for human rights abuses. The prosecutors argue that the military regime set up detention centers where mothers were kept until they gave birth.

Also standing trial is Reynaldo Bignone, the last president during the dictatorship, as well as several former military officials and a doctor who assisted the pregnant women in captivity.

At the time of the Dirty War, the junta denied any knowledge of the baby thefts, let alone responsibility for the disappearance of political prisoners. In public, the U.S. government also was circumspect, even as the junta's death squads kidnapped and killed its opponents.