By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - A Rome court on Tuesday handed down eight life sentences for the murder of 23 Italian citizens in a conspiracy, known as Operation Condor, in which South American dictatorships hunted down and killed thousands of dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s.
It is the first time an Italian court has ruled a conspiracy existed between the governments of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia to help find and assassinate each others' political opponents.
After a trial that lasted more than two years, lead judge Evelina Canale said eight men were convicted in absentia, including former Bolivian President Luis Garcia, now 87 and serving a 30-year prison sentence in Bolivia for crimes committed during his government, and former Peruvian President Francisco Morales, now 95.
"It's clear that this conviction confirms that Operation Condor existed and that it was a criminal conspiracy," Prosecutor Tiziana Cugini told Reuters after the ruling.
"It's very significant, especially given that heads of state from the time were convicted."
Under Italian law, Italian magistrates can investigate the killings of Italian citizens overseas.
Morales' son, Remigio Morales, said his father had nothing to do with the killings. Garcia's attorney, Frank Campero, said Garcia was never notified of the trial in Rome, but would appeal the verdict as he denies wrongdoing.
According to Italian law, the first-degree conviction can be appealed twice before the ruling becomes definitive and sentences are served.
Should the sentences become definitive, Italy can ask for extradition, but due to their age it may be more likely that they would serve their sentences in their own countries.
Operation Condor, named after the broad-winged birds that inhabit the Andes, was a Cold War era campaign by U.S.-backed right-wing dictatorships in South America that killed scores of left-leaning opponents.
Last year an Argentine court found 15 ex-military officials guilty of conspiring to kidnap and assassinate dissidents in Operation Condor, including former dictator Reynaldo Bignone, who was given a 20-year sentence.
Morales' life sentence marks the second time a former Peruvian leader has been found guilty of human rights abuses, following ex-president Alberto Fujimori's 2009 conviction for leading death squads that killed civilians in the 1990s.
Italy's investigation into the murder of its citizens began in 1999. Cugini sought 27 life sentences in October, but the court acquitted 19 of them.
The other six convictions were of former military and government officials from Uruguay, Chile and Peru. Some 140 witnesses testified during the trial, Cugini said.
"We heard some truly terrible torture stories," she said.
(With additional reporting by Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino in Peru, Editing by Angus MacSwan)