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Priest Convicted in Argentine “Dirty War” Tribunal—A Report by Sam Ferguson ’09

The following report was published on on October 10, 2007.

Priest Convicted in Argentine “Dirty War” Tribunal
By Sam Ferguson ’09

La Plata, Argentina - Close to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, a large crowd inside and outside La Plata's federal courthouse erupted into cheers when a three-judge tribunal announced that Father Christian von Wernich was guilty, committed his crimes "under the mark of genocide" and was sentenced to life in prison. Von Wernich, convicted of seven homicides, 31 of instances of torture and 34 instances of kidnapping, is the first member of the Argentine Catholic Church to be convicted for crimes associated with Argentina's last dictatorship.

The courtroom was packed to capacity. A makeshift overflow room, which had sat empty for most of the three months of proceedings, was full. Hundreds of protesters outside erupted when the final verdict came down, igniting fireworks and bursting into cheers. Judge Carlos Rosanski asked "please, please, please" on several occasions, pleading for, but not ordering, silence so that the tribunal could finish reading the verdict.

Von Wernich, who entered the courtroom in a bulletproof vest and sat behind bulletproof glass flanked by three armed and riot-protected guards, nervously looked into the desk where he was seated. As Judge Rosanski read the guilty verdict on the homicide charges, von Wernich exchanged words with his lawyer. As Rosanski announced the crimes were committed "under the mark of genocide," von Wernich blinked rapidly and made direct eye contact with the judge.

Von Wernich, 69, served as police chaplain for the Buenos Aires police force for the first two years of the dictatorship, which ruled from 1976-83. That government was responsible for the disappearance of between 14,000 and 30,000 people, in a clandestine campaign known as the "dirty war."

To this day, the final resting place of most of the disappeared remains unknown, though confessions from a few military officials involved have provided some glimpse into what happened. In his 1995 book, "Confessions of a Dirty Warrior," Adolfo Scilingo recounts taking drugged prisoners and throwing them out of an airplane into the River Plate, alive. The vast majority of those involved in the dirty war, however, have remained silent, under what Carolina Varsky, a human rights lawyer for the Center for Social and Legal Studies, calls a "mafia code." Von Wernich, too, refused to answer to the charges against him when called to the stand on the first day of testimony.

The Argentine Catholic Church refused to investigate von Wernich's role after the collapse of the dictatorship, despite wide public protest. He was transferred to Chile in 1989, where he became a priest in a small fishing village under an assumed name, Christian Gonzalez. Tuesday the church released a tepid statement, claiming his role was individual and not supported by the church, indicating that the Argentine Church's refusal to investigate is likely to remain. It is unclear if von Wernich will be excommunicated. Church officials could not be reached for comment.

Von Wernich escaped indictment in the 1980s, when many of the dictatorship's notorious criminals were tried and convicted, including Ramon Camps, who was head the Buenos Aires police force. Two laws passed in 1986-87 amounted to the functional equivalent of an amnesty for low and mid-level ranking officials. However, in 2003, Congress annulled those laws and von Wernich was arrested shortly thereafter. The Supreme Court, following a 2001 decision by Federal Judge Gabriel Cavallo, declared previous amnesty laws unconstitutional in 2005, assuring that von Wernich's prosecution would be constitutional. Von Wernich's trial was the second to be elevated to oral trial since the Supreme Court's decision. Both cases have returned convictions. Some 340 others are awaiting trial in a wide-reaching investigation into Argentina's past.

Aida Sararei, from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights organization comprised of mothers of the disappeared, described the decision as "incredible."

"This is a strong symbol of condemnation of the church, but there were many within the church who participated in the repression, who were in the concentration camps, and the church continues to protect them," Sararei said. Nevertheless, she said, "It gives us hope. We're still not free from the past, but we've moved one important step forward."

Over seventy-five witnesses appeared at the trial - more than fifty of whom had been illegally kidnapped and kept in clandestine confinement by the dictatorship. Among those who testified in the case were Perez Esquivel, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Hector Timerman, consulate general to the United States in New York. Timerman's father, Jacobo, is the most well-known victim of the dirty war. After spending several years under brutal, anti-Semitic conditions in Camp's control, he was finally released due to mounting international pressure from his press associates. Timerman then published a book while exiled abroad in Israel, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," which brought international attention to the human rights crimes of the dictatorship - specifically, his several years under intense torture - and helped precipitate its collapse.

Von Wernich was repeatedly accused by witnesses of using his position as a priest to assist interrogators in extracting information from the detained. Hector Ballent, who testified on the first day of von Wernich's trial, said Von Wernich approached him within the clandestine center where he had been tortured under "La Maquina" - stripped naked, soaked and shocked with electricity. Von Wernich urged him: "Why don't you confess, so that you won't be punished anymore?" Ruben Fernando Schell described an exchange with von Wernich where the priest told him, "You've been planting bombs, doing bad things so that, when you leave - if you leave - God will reject you." He described von Wernich's pressure as "the worst torture, a moral torture."

The defense had hoped to use a religious privilege explanation for von Wernich's acts - that he entered the clandestine centers as a member of the church and sought confession. Priests are obliged to hear confession from the righteous and the sinful alike. Though von Wernich may have been in bad company, the defense had hoped the lack of evidence placing von Wernich within the centers while physical torture was occurring would exculpate him.

The court, however, did not agree with this argument, and likely saw von Wernich's presence alone as indication of torture. (The clear legal basis for the decision was not announced on Tuesday; the written decision will be released November 1). Prosecutors and lawyers for the victims used the testimony of many witnesses and a former priest to challenge the religious defense. Julio Nazar claimed "Nobody - especially a priest - could not know what was happening. If you entered, you had permission from the boss. He came in perfectly calm, and knew all of our names. He obviously didn't arrive by chance." Towards the end of the trial, Father Ruben Capitanio, who attended the same seminary as von Wernich, condemned the role of the church during Argentina's dirty war. The church "was like a mother that did not look for her children. It did not kill anybody, but it did not save anybody, either." His testimony helped weaken the religious defense, showing that other religious interpretations of a priest's role in the face of repression and torture were possible. Perez Esquivel, winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize and president of SERPaj, a Christian nonviolent progressive movement, told the tribunal, "There were ideological conceptions and interests that brought sectors of the church to align themselves with the dictatorship and with the repression."

Perhaps the most damning testimony came from Mercedes Molina, 30, whose mother was among the "Group of Seven" murdered late in 1977. Her baptism certificate was signed by von Wernich after she was born in captivity. Several months later, her grandparents came to get her out of the Brigada de Investigaciones detention center where she was born. It is estimated that 500 children were born in captivity, though many of them had their identities forged and were raised by military families after their parents were killed.

After suffering brutal torture for several months, the "Group of Seven" began to "flip" and provided information against former militant comrades for Camps and the Buenos Aires police force. As a reward for their conversion, the group was granted a few privileges almost never given to the disappeared. Von Wernich mediated contact with their families, promising both the victims and their families that he was arranging for their exile. He collected several thousand US dollars from the families, claiming he needed it to buy plane tickets and arrange for visas. The "Group of Seven," ostensibly on their way to the airport to be sent into exile, were murdered. Julio Emmed, in the car when the group was murdered, claimed in 1984, before Argentina's National Truth Commission, established by the first democratic government after the transition to investigate the human rights abuses under the dictatorship, that he was ordered by von Wernich to kill the group. Emmed, however, later recanted this testimony, claiming the commission offered him $20,000 for the testimony. Emmed was murdered in 1987 under mysterious circumstances.

Members of the "Group of Seven's" families testified of a cover-up after they did not receive contact from their children when they were supposedly sent into exile. Von Wernich cautioned Mercedes's grandmother to not make "any public statement, don't file any habeas action. Keep silent and be prudent; wait at least a year, for her safety." He also assured another family, "You know how kids are, they always take time to communicate." The tribunal clearly found the combined testimony from the families and Emmed's old statement sufficient to convict von Wernich for participation in the murder of the group. The defense is likely to appeal that the evidence was not legally sufficient.

Von Wernich had earlier accused witnesses of lying to the tribunal, in detached religious tone. "False witness is the devil, because it is filled with malice. In 2,000 years of history, no priest of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church has violated the sacraments." The tribunal did not heed his last-minute plea.

Sam Ferguson is a JD candidate at Yale Law School and a former Senior Researcher at the Rockridge Institute under George Lakoff. He is investigating the problems of transitional justice and democratic consolidation after periods of military rule. He is currently living in Buenos Aires.