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.
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 dictatorshipMany 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."
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org