Clergyman to Stand Trial for "Dirty War" Crimes in Argentina
Clergyman to Stand Trial for "Dirty War" Crimes in Argentina
A much awaited human rights abuse trial is underway in
Former Chaplin Christian Von Wernich wore a priest's collar and bulletproof vest as he sat behind reinforced glass in a federal court. The court clerk read charges accusing him of collaborating with state security agents and covering up crimes in seven deaths, 31 cases of torture, and 42 cases of illegal imprisonment. He answered basic court questions but refused to testify in the case, stating, "Following the advice of Dr. Jerollini who is my lawyer. I am not going to make a declaration. And I am not going to accept questions."
An estimated 30,000 people were killed during the military junta's reign of terror. As his trial began, hundreds of human rights activists stood outside the courtroom in the city of
At least 120 witnesses are slated to testify against Von Wernich and the court has taken precautions to protect their safety, putting up police fences around the courthouse and installing metal detectors. In the front row of the courtroom's audience, representatives from the human rights organization Mothers of Plaza de Mayo sat with their white headscarves listening to the court's accusations.
According to Nora Cortinas, president of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo's founding chapter, the Catholic Church supported the crimes committed during the dictatorship.
"The heads of the Catholic Church participated in the dictatorship. Many priests were chaplains inside the barracks of the concentration camps. We want to point out that there is a sector from the church that didn't have anything to do with the dictatorship, on the contrary they supported us and reported the crimes committed at the time. But most of the representatives from the church participated in the celebration of death and torture," explains Cortinas.
The Church's Role in the Dictatorship
Journalist Horacio Verbitsky recently published a book on the Catholic Church's involvement with the military dictatorship. In his book, El Silencio (The Silence), he reports that the Catholic Church actively participated in the 1976-1983 dictatorship while having full knowledge of the human rights violations being committed at the time.
In the days leading up to the coup, representatives from the Catholic Church met with leaders of
However, it was during interviews in 1995 with former Marine captain Adolfo Scilingo in which he confessed to Verbitsky having led the "Vuelos de Muerte" or death flights, that Verbitsky realized the gravity of the Catholic Church's complicity with the military's human rights crimes. Scilingo, who was sentenced to 645 years in prison by a Spanish court, reported that the catholic hierarchy approved drugging dissidents and dropping them from planes into the
During the dictatorship, there were representatives from the church who provided refuge for people fleeing from being kidnapped by commando groups and reported the crimes being committed by security commandos. At the same time, they risked their own lives. French nuns, Alice Domon and LÃƒÂ©onie 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
Human rights representatives have demanded that the Catholic Church issue an apology for the victims during
Von Wernich's Past and Present
"Christian Von Wernich is one of the spokesmen from the Church that participated in the tortures and 'comforted' disappeared detainees," said Christina Valdez, whose husband was kidnapped and later disappeared in the provincial capital of
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 HÃƒÂ©ctor Mariano Ballent testified that the catholic priest would visit detainees in the 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
Legacy of Fighting for Human Rights
Outside the courthouse, hundreds of human rights advocates rallied, demanding a severe sentence for the priest. At one point, Von Wernich interrupted head judge Carlos Rozanski, saying he couldn't hear the accusations against him because protestors could be heard yelling "Assassin" from outside the courtroom.
Christina Valdez describes how she felt seeing Von Wernich on trial: "Looking at Von Wernich is looking at the face of a murderer. I suppose that all the relatives of the disappeared must feel a similar sensation: a certain impunity because one has to sit and swallow down everything that he or she feels in that moment. You can't yell at the murderer, you can't scream 'assassin'."
This is only the third human rights trial since
Rights representatives have expressed immediate concerns over missing witness Julio Lopez; a new name that has been inscribed on the doleful roll call of
Only a handful of former military officers have been tried for their human rights abuses during the military dictatorship. In April, a federal court revoked a 1990 pardon for two of the leaders of the former dictatorship, Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera, although it is unlikely that the former dictators will serve any part of the life sentences they received in 1985.
Etchecolatz is only the second military officer to be charged and convicted for human rights abuses since 2005, when
In total, 256 former military personnel and members of the military government have been accused of human rights crimes and are now awaiting trial. However, this adds up to less than one ex-military officer for each of the country's 375 clandestine detention centers that were used to torture and forcefully disappear people. Aside from numbers, human rights representatives report that the trials are advancing at a snail's pace, if advancing at all. Victims blame an inefficient court system filled with structural bureaucratic roadblocks and uncooperative judges.
Nora Cortinas 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."
Von Wernich's trial is expected to go on for two months. Human rights groups are preparing events to demand the safe return of Julio Lopez as the year anniversary of his disappearance nears.
Marie Trigona is a journalist based in