A much awaited human rights abuse trial is underway in Argentina.
The accused is a catholic priest charged with carrying out human rights abuses while working in several clandestine detention centers during the nation's 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship. The priest has been under arrest for 4 years ago while living under a false alias in Chile
This is the latest human rights trial of accused torturer since the landmark conviction of a former police officer for genocide in 2006. Former Chaplin Christian Von Wernich wore a priest's collar and bullet proof 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, “Following the advice of Dr. Jerollini who is my lawyer. I am not going to declare. And I am not going to accept questions.” 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 court house and installing metal detectors. In the front row of the court room'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 – Linea Fundadora, 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.” Journalist Horacio Verbisky recently published a book on the Catholic Church's involvement with the military dictatorship. Outside the courthouse, hundreds of human rights advocates rallied, demanding a severe sentence for the Catholic 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's, whose husband was kidnapped and disappeared in La Plata in 1976, 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 Argentina's supreme court struck down amnesty laws in 2005 protecting military personnel who served during the 7-year dictatorship. Human rights organizations worry that judicial roadblocks and an atmosphere of fear may provide former members of the military dictatorship a window to escape conviction.
Nora Cortinas says that Argentines do not wish to live with a justice system of 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 Julio Lopez, a key witness who helped convict a former officer for life, but who disappeared nearly a year ago.
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