[Ppnews] Argentina: Priest Imprisoned for Dirty War Crimes

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 19 12:14:25 EDT 2007

ZNet | Argentina

Argentina: Priest Imprisoned for Dirty War Crimes
by Marie Trigona; 
Freedom; October 19, 2007

Former Chaplin Christian Von Wernich was 
sentenced to life in prison on October 9th in 
Argentina, for committing crimes against humanity 
during the nation's bloody military junta. He is 
the first catholic priest to be charged with 
human rights abuses committed during the 
1976-1983 military junta, during which an estimated 30,000 people were killed.

Von Wernich was found guilty of collaborating 
with state security agents and covering up crimes 
in seven deaths, 31 cases of torture and 42 cases 
of illegal imprisonment. This is the latest human 
rights verdict of an accused torturer since the 
landmark conviction of a former police officer 
for genocide in 2006. As judge Carlos Rozanski 
read the historic verdict, torture survivors and 
family members of victims celebrated.

Slow wheels of justice: 30 years of impunity

Outside the courtroom between hugs and cheers, 
Carlos Saiman, torture survivor and plaintiff 
against the ex-military chaplain, said that the 
trials need to continue. "We want for those who 
participated in genocide to be put in jail, today 
there's one more in prison. This should force us 
to continue to bring every person who 
participated in the genocide in the clandestine 
detention centers and supported genocide to 
justice, justice which we the survivors didn't 
have, that the 30,000 disappeared didn't have."

In total, 256 former military personnel and 
members of the military government have been 
accused of human rights crimes and are now 
awaiting trial. This is only the third trial held 
since Argentina's Supreme Court struck down 
amnesty laws in 2005 protecting military 
personnel who served during the seven-year 
dictatorship. So far, two police officers and a 
priest have been tried – not a single military 
officer has been slated for trial. Human rights 
groups in Argentina report that the trials to 
convict former members of the military 
dictatorship for abuses have advanced at a 
snail’s pace, if advancing at all. Victims blame 
an inefficient court system filled with 
structural roadblocks and uncooperative judges.

The historic verdict, sentencing Von Wernich to 
life in prison comes shortly after the one year 
anniversary to mark the one year disappearance of 
a key witness who helped convict a former police 
officer for life in 2006. Julio Lopez, went 
missing exactly a year ago, on the eve of the 
land mark conviction of Miguel Etchecolatz, the 
first military officer to be sentenced to life in 
prison for crimes against humanity and genocide 
committed during the 1976-1983 military 
dictatorship. Lopez was last seen walking near 
his home in La Plata, about 40 miles from Buenos Aires.

"After the disappearance of Jorge Julio Lopez, we 
were afraid whether we could continue with the 
trials. Even though the witnesses are afraid it 
is important to continue with the trials to end 
with the impunity," said Guadelupe Godoy human 
rights lawyer handling the plaintiffs charges 
against Von Wernich in the proceedings. Many of 
the witnesses have had to accept government 
sponsored witness protection. Just an hour before 
Von Wernich’s verdict was scheduled, the 
courthouse in La Plata had to be evacuated.

"Spiritual Aid"

In the courtroom, wearing a priest's collar and 
bullet proof vest, Von Wernich seemed unaffected 
and showed no remorse when the verdict was read. 
On October 9, during his final declaration the 
ex-military chaplain said that in the history of 
Christianity, no priest had ever violated the 
sacrament of confession. "The sacrament of 
confession - or reconciliation - gives men the 
opportunity to eradicate their hearts of evil. We 
the priests of the Catholic church, can use the 
sacrament and share it. With this sacrament and 
in 2,000 years in the history of the church, no 
priest from the Roman-Catholic church ever violated this sacrament."

According to Godoy, the ex-military chaplain had 
a direct role in the forced disappearances of men 
and women in clandestine detention centers. "Von 
Wernich is responsible for all the disappeared 
from the clandestine detention centers where he 
worked. He wasn’t only guilty in collaborating in 
the kidnapping, torture and killing of people, 
but directly participating in the crimes, 
especially torturing. His job was to break the 
witnesses down and get more information from 
detainees during and after torture sessions."

More than 100 witnesses testified against Von 
Wernich in the trial which opened in July. He 
worked as a military chaplain in clandestine 
detention centers where detainees were tortured 
during interrogations. Many representatives from 
the human rights organization Mothers of Plaza de 
Mayo cried and embraced each other as the verdict was read.

"Christian Von Wernich is one of the spokesmen 
from the Church that participated in the torture 
and ‘comforted’ disappeared detainees," said 
Christina Valdez, whose husband was kidnapped and 
later disappeared in the provincial capital of La 
Plata. Witnesses have testified that Von Wernich 
carried out a special role inside a network of 
clandestine detention centers known as the "Camps 
Circuit" in the Buenos Aires suburbs. He is most 
notorious for his title as "spiritual aid" inside 
the Puesto Vasco concentration camp, one of the 
375 used to disappear, torture, and murder 30,000 people.

On just the third day of the trial, a number of 
witnesses gave remarkable testimonies of Von 
Wernich's crimes in several clandestine detention 
centers. Torture survivor Héctor Mariano Ballent 
testified that the catholic priest would visit 
detainees in their cells after torture sessions 
saying, "Come on son, confess everything so they 
stop torturing you." After Ballent asked from his 
cell how a priest could condone this type of 
punishment, Von Wernich left. At least 30 
detainees report that they saw Von Wernich inside 
the Puesto Vasco clandestine detention center.

The Catholic Church relocated Von Wernich to 
Chile at his request to avoid criminal 
persecution in 1996, just before a series of 
trials began in La Plata in 1998. He was working 
as a priest in El Quisco, Chile under the alias 
of Christian González, a name the parish gave to 
him until he was arrested in 2003.

Church’s role in the dictatorship

Many priests and church members were victims of 
the military junta’s bloody persecution of 
dissidents. French nuns, Alice Domon and Léonie 
Duque, were disappeared and murdered in 1977 for 
their organizing activities with the poor. 
Ex-navy captain Alfredo Astiz, also known as the 
"blond angel of death" is facing trial for the 
nuns' disappearances along with those of a dozen 
other people, including Azucena Villaflor, the 
founder of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Villaflor 
was kidnapped by a commando group in 1977 as she 
left the Santa Cruz church in Buenos Aires, where 
family members of the disappeared would 
clandestinely meet. Humanitarian organizations 
have reported that during the dictatorship at 
least 19 priests were disappeared, 11 were 
kidnapped, tortured, and later released, and 22 
were arrested for political reasons.

Another case of persecution of Third World 
Priests involves a group of five members of the 
Palatine parish in Buenos Aires. Shortly after 
the 1976 coup, in a sermon Father Alfredo Kelly 
reported that locals with ties to the military 
were auctioning off valuables that belonged to 
people who were "disappeared" by commando groups. 
On July 4, 1976 a commando operative entered the 
San Patricio church, murdering the priest and 
four seminary students. When the five bodies were 
discovered, the commando group had left a written 
epitaph: "these lefties died because of their 
virgin minds that were indoctrinated." No suspect 
has been brought to justice for their murders.

Human rights representatives have demanded that 
the Catholic Church issue an apology for the 
victims during Argentina's so called "Dirty War." 
The Catholic Church has refused to issue a 
statement, other than to confirm that Von Wernich 
continues in the ranks of the church hierarchy. 
The Argentine Catholic Church has refused to 
suspend Von Wernich from his duties of the 
priesthood, even after the verdict. Behind bars 
in the V.I.P. Marcos Paz Federal prison, Von 
Wernich will be able to give communion to fellow 
cellmates – convicted torturer Miguel Etchecolatz 
and other human rights offenders.

Sara Derotier de Cobacho is a Mother of Plaza de 
Mayo whose two sons were disappeared during the 
dictatorship. One of her sons, Enrique Ramon 
Derotier de Cobacho was disappeared at 
23-years-of-age for his work as a seminary 
student and organizing efforts. "Today is the 
fruit of 30 years of struggle. Today, because the 
amnesty laws were revoked, we are able to put Von 
Wernich on trial. For me today is a strong blow 
because I have a disappeared son who was in 
seminary school, so I have a contradiction of 
what the church meant. Not only was there 
impunity, but the Church remained silent."

Painful trials

"For practicing Catholics, we have entered an 
identity crisis. Today, I couldn’t sit and listen 
to Von Wernich. I thought of my son. And the 
years I lost praying," said Derotier de Cobacho 
with tears in her eyes, referring to Von 
Wernich’s court sermon. Many Mothers are now in 
the 80’s, continuing a legacy of fighting for 
justice for their disappeared sons and daughters 
– a legacy which they have endured for more than 
30 years. In the months since the trial began, 
mothers, relatives whose family members were 
disappeared and survivors each day would line up 
outside the courthouse for police to open the 
gates – a moment they have fought 30 years for 
the proceedings, for the day when a court would 
condemn the participants of the military junta’s 
bloody systematic killing of students, workers, 
academics, proponents of liberation theology and neighborhood organizers.

Many human rights activists have expressed 
immediate concerns over the handling of the human 
rights trials and the slow proceedings. Nora 
Cortinas, from the president of the Mothers of 
Plaza de Mayo's founding chapter, says that 
Argentines do not wish to live with a justice 
system that permits impunity: "What we want is 
for the trials to speed up a little bit and not 
be tried on a case by case basis, and that the 
government takes responsibility to help end the 
threats against witnesses, judges, and lawyers, 
so that we can really say that there's justice in this country."

Human rights groups are awaiting the next slated 
trial of military personnel who worked in the 
ESMA Navy Mechanics School, Argentina's most 
notorious clandestine detention center. The 
mega-ESMA case has been tied up in court 
proceedings and judicial blockades through much of this year.

Groups worry that many of the military junta 
leaders and lower rank officers (many of whom are 
now in their 70’s and 80’s) who participated in 
the systematic disappearance of 30,000 people may 
die before they are tried for their crimes. 
Justice is now legally possible since the Supreme 
Court nullified the amnesty for military leaders 
through the full-stop and due-obedience laws 
passed in the 1990’s. Much of the evidence has 
been researched by human rights organizations, 
with very little support from the government. 
Survivors and relatives must give testimony on a 
case-by-case basis, trying each military 
personnel individually rather than by operations 
in the clandestine detention centers – a painful, 
slow process for the survivors who must relive 
the terror which they endured while in illegal captivity.

Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and 
filmmaker based in Buenos Aires. She can be 
reached at 
<mailto:mtrigona at msn.com>mtrigona at msn.comThis 
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this video on the Von Wernich verdict.

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