Thursday, October 11, 2007

Court Sentences Argentine Priest to Life in Prison for Genocide

A Catholic priest was sentenced to life in prison October 9 in Argentina, for committing crimes against humanity during the nation's bloody military junta. He is the first priest to be charged for these crimes. This is the latest human rights verdict of an accused torturer since the landmark conviction of a former police officer for genocide in 2006.

Former Chaplin Christian 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. 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. As judge Carlos Rozanski read the historic verdict, torture survivors and family members of victims celebrated.

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 the courtroom, wearing a priest's collar and bullet proof vest, Von Wernich seemed unaffected when the verdict was read. Yesterday, 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. And us the priests of the Catholic church, can use the sacrament and share it. With this sacrament and in the 2,000 years in history, 2,000 years in history, no priest from the Roman-Catholic church ever violated this sacrament.”

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.

Sara Derotier de Cobacho is a Mother of Plaza de Mayo whose two sons were disappeared during the dictatorship. “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.”

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. The Catholic Church has refused to issue a statement, other than confirming that Christian Von Wernich continues in the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy. 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.

Video on the trial of Christian Von Wernich

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