Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Priest Faces Judgement Day

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 9 2007 (IPS) - The Argentine justice system is prosecuting Christian von Wernich, a Catholic priest, for “aberrant, atrocious and massive” crimes. He exemplifies the collaboration of part of the Catholic Church with state terrorism during the military dictatorship that was in power from 1976 to 1983.

The trial of the 69-year-old priest, who has been in detention since 2003, began on Jul. 4 at Federal Oral Court No. 1 in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires.

Von Wernich appeared behind a reinforced glass shield, separate from courtroom spectators who were largely members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights organisation. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and a white clerical collar.

Von Wernich refused to testify. “I will not make a statement, nor will I answer questions,” he said. He regards himself as a “prisoner of war” who has been subjected to “all manner of torture,” according to a letter of his published in March by the ultra-rightwing magazine Cabildo.

Von Wernich, who was a chaplain with officer rank in the Buenos Aires provincial police force in the 1970s, is accused of seven homicides, 42 kidnappings and 31 cases of torture. According to witnesses, he used to visit the dictatorship’s clandestine detention centres and urge prisoners to cooperate with their jailers.

The police district commander at the time, the late general Ramón Camps, received spiritual counsel from von Wernich.

Journalist Jacobo Timerman, now deceased, the founder and editor of the newspaper La Opinión, identified Camps as the man principally responsible for kidnapping him in 1977, and described Camps’s anti-Semitism in his book “Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number.”

The trial began with the reading of the charges, and will end in mid-September. Nearly 130 witnesses are expected to testify, most of them survivors of clandestine detention camps, who came across von Wernich in their places of captivity. The priest would try to win their trust so that they would betray their comrades.

When the charges were read, the prosecution said it had “sufficient evidence” to prove that he inflicted “psychological torments” on detainees, and attended torture sessions. He did all this “voluntarily,” in collusion with the military torturers, in order to “break” the prisoners’ resistance.

Human rights organisations estimate that about 30,000 people were abducted and murdered by the Argentine military dictatorship. A special commission established by former President Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) received individual reports testifying to at least 8,500 “disappearances.”

In an interview with IPS, journalist Hernán Brienza, author of the book “Maldito eres tú” (Cursèd Art Thou: The Church and Illegal Repression) on von Wernich’s life, said that he is only “the most emblematic figure” among the group of 30 military chaplains who were seen in different detention camps during the dictatorship.

“It caught my attention from a human point of view, that someone who proclaims the word of Christ and speaks from the pulpit to the faithful should be capable of the things this man did. It was obviously a policy: if not of the Church itself, then certainly of the military chaplaincies which colluded with the repressive regime,” said Brienza.

Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who was called as a witness, told IPS that during the military regime “some Church representatives were committed to the Gospel, and others to the dictatorship,” and he mentioned the former bishop of La Plata, the ultra-conservative Antonio Plaza, who was von Wernich’s superior.

Some priests and bishops opposed the dictatorship, although perhaps not as many as in Brazil and Chile.

Five priests of the Palatine Order were murdered in Buenos Aires, and the bishop of La Rioja province, Monsignor Enrique Angelelli, died in a car accident on Aug. 4, 1976 that was regarded as a murder organised by the military to silence his criticism.

Pérez Esquivel pointed out that “this is the first time anywhere in the world that a priest has been accused of crimes against humanity,” and said that it was “a very significant event” which should make all of society reflect on the participation that other religious leaders may have had in forcible disappearances.

The same point was made by President Néstor Kirchner. He said that von Wernich’s trial was a “historic occasion,” and that the priest “is a disgrace to the Church.”

Brienza recorded the testimony of survivors and victims’ relatives from five detention centres in Buenos Aires province where von Wernich had been sighted.

Osvaldo Lovezzano told Brienza that during his four months’ incarceration in the Buenos Aires Police Investigations Brigade, he saw the priest recommend that a prisoner complaining of pain from electric shock torture “be given massages.”

Another witness who survived the torture camps and knew von Wernich is Luis Velazco. He remembered the priest saying, “You know what the trouble is, lads? You did a great deal of harm to the country with all that terrorism, all those bombs. You broke the laws of the nation and you broke the law of God, and that’s playing with fire.”

The vast majority of the victims of military repression were not members of the guerrilla groups that were active at that time. They were simply opponents of the dictatorship who never took up arms or planted a bomb.

Velazco said that another prisoner, Héctor Baratti, before he disappeared, asked von Wernich what blame could be laid on his baby daughter Ana Libertad, born in captivity to his wife Elena de la Cuadra, when both Ana and her mother disappeared. “The sins of the parents shall be visited upon the children,” the priest replied.

According to accounts given by young soldiers doing their military service, which was obligatory at that time, army chaplains used to say that killing a pregnant “subversive” woman was not a sin, as her baby would also be a “subversive.”

Von Wernich is accused of seven homicides of Montonero guerrillas, identified with the extreme left wing of the Justicialista (Peronista) Party. Relatives of these victims all testified that he personally collected money from each family (1,500 dollars per family, according to Brienza), to get the imprisoned guerrillas out of the country.

It was a trap: they were all killed. In 1984, police officer Julio Emmed testified before the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) that he was present, together with von Wernich, when police doctor Jorge Bergés gave four of the Montoneros lethal injections.

In spite of the evidence against him, von Wernich remained at large until 2003. Brienza located him in Chile where he was working as a parish priest under a false identity, as “Father González.” A few months later, von Wernich appeared in an Argentine court and was taken into custody by the justice authorities.

At that time, he admitted that he visited detainees, but he asserted the right to remain silent under the seal of the confessional, and claimed not to remember the instances reported by eye-witnesses of his complicity in torture sessions.

He also acknowledged that he had baptised a baby girl born in captivity to Liliana Galarza, a woman who subsequently disappeared. He said he had asked Bishop Plaza for permission to do this.

In 2005, the amnesty laws of 1980, designed to protect those guilty of atrocities (torture, murder, disappearances and terrorism) during the dictatorship, were declared unconstitutional.

At the time the amnesty was approved, the armed forces were still a threat to democracy and had twice risen up against the constitutional Alfonsín administration to protest the trial and conviction of military criminals.

This trial is the third of its kind to take place since the amnesty laws were repealed. The first was of Federal Police sub-officer Julio Simón, who was convicted in 2006.

Shortly afterwards, Miguel Etchecolatz, a former police commissioner in Buenos Aires province, was convicted. During his trial, 77-year-old prosecution witness Jorge Julio López disappeared, and nine months later has still not been found.

López’s disappearance has created a climate of fear among witnesses at von Wernich’s trial. Two witnesses refused to speak to IPS after it became known that the home of witness Felisa Marilaf was burgled by unknown persons who stole documents that were to be used in the trial.

Human rights organisations told the government it was responsible for the physical safety of witnesses in this new trial. Justicia Ya, an association of a dozen human rights groups, pointed out that the failure to clear up López’s disappearance “only creates more impunity.”

The Interior Ministry this year created a Truth and Justice programme to protect witnesses, and appointed Marcelo Saín as its head. Pérez Esquivel, however, told IPS that the programme still has no premises to work in, and lacks personnel and funding.

Von Wernich’s trial resumes on Tuesday.

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