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Priest guilty in ‘Dirty War’ trial

LA PLATA, Argenti­na (AP) — A Catholic priest accused in a series of deaths and kid­nap­pings dur­ing Argenti­na’s Dirty War was con­vict­ed and sen­tenced to life in prison Tues­day

For­mer police chap­lain Chris­t­ian von Wer­nich was found guilty of being a “co-par­tic­i­pant” with police in sev­en homi­cides, 31 tor­ture cas­es and 42 kid­nap­pings, end­ing a tri­al that has focused atten­tion on the church dur­ing the 1976–83 mil­i­tary rule.

Hun­dreds of peo­ple beat drums and set off fire­works out­side the fed­er­al cour­t­house after the ver­dict was announced. Dozens of spec­ta­tors cheered inside the packed court­room includ­ing head­scarved mem­bers of rights group the Moth­ers of the Plaza de Mayo, who for the last 30 years have been seek­ing to learn the fate of sons and daugh­ters who dis­ap­peared dur­ing a crack­down on dis­sent.

“At last, at last! My God, it’s a con­vic­tion!” said Tati Almey­da, of the Moth­ers of the Plaza de Mayo. “We nev­er thought we’d see this day. Jus­tice has been served.”

Von Wer­nich ear­li­er in the day pro­fessed his inno­cence: “False tes­ti­mo­ny is of the dev­il because he is respon­si­ble for mal­ice and is the father of evil and lies.”

On Mon­day a pros­e­cu­tor rec­om­mend­ed a life prison sen­tence for von Wer­nich, 69, say­ing the priest had been linked by sur­vivors to at least five clan­des­tine deten­tion camps in Buenos Aires province.

“Do peo­ple real­ly under­stand what a clan­des­tine tor­ture cen­ter was? Do peo­ple know all the ter­ror that went on in those places?” pros­e­cu­tor Car­los Dulau said.

Dur­ing months of tri­al, more than 70 wit­ness­es tes­ti­fied and judges toured for­mer tor­ture cen­ters at police sta­tions with sur­vivors. The dirty war offi­cial­ly left some 13,000 dead or miss­ing, although human rights groups have put the toll at near­ly 30,000.

Defense lawyer Juan Mar­tin Ceroli­ni argued Tues­day that von Wer­nich as a priest was oblig­ed to vis­it police deten­tion cen­ters as part of his duties. But Ceroli­ni insist­ed that role did not mean von Wer­nich had any part in a state crack­down.

Ceroli­ni reject­ed sur­vivor tes­ti­mo­ny sug­gest­ing von Wer­nich — who has worn a bul­let­proof vest over his cler­i­cal col­lar dur­ing the tri­al — con­spired with police to help extract infor­ma­tion from pris­on­ers sub­ject to tor­ture under the guise of giv­ing them spir­i­tu­al assis­tance.

“Von Wer­nich nev­er kid­napped, tor­tured or killed any­one,” Ceroli­ni said. He charged that the tri­al was unjust and that the gov­ern­ment is fail­ing to pros­e­cute “ter­ror­ist acts” com­mit­ted by for­mer left­ist rebels against state secu­ri­ty forces.

Von Wer­nich said in his last words to the judges that he nev­er vio­lat­ed the priest­ly pro­hi­bi­tion against reveal­ing infor­ma­tion obtained in the Roman Catholic sacra­ment of con­fes­sion.

“No priest of the Catholic church ... has ever vio­lat­ed this sacra­ment,” he said.

Argenti­na’s Catholic Church, which with­held com­ment dur­ing the months of tri­al, said on its Web site that it was “moved by the pain” brought about by the priest’s con­vic­tion for what con­sti­tut­ed “seri­ous crimes.”

“We believe the steps tak­en by the jus­tice sys­tem in clar­i­fy­ing events (of the past) should serve us to renew the forces of all cit­i­zens on the path to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” said the state­ment, which urged Argen­tines to put away “hate and ran­cor.”

The state­ment did not address pub­lic crit­i­cism sur­round­ing the tri­al that the church failed to vig­or­ous­ly defend human rights dur­ing the dic­ta­tor­ship.

How­ev­er, defend­ers of the church over the years have reject­ed such charges, say­ing sev­er­al priests and nuns were among those killed dur­ing the jun­ta years.

Activists said they hoped von Wer­nich’s con­vic­tion would encour­age oth­er courts to move for­ward with pend­ing cas­es against scores of oth­er for­mer secu­ri­ty agents.

Crit­ics say the dis­ap­pear­ance of a key wit­ness dur­ing last year’s tri­al of for­mer police chief Miguel Etcheco­latz has had a chill­ing effect on efforts to pros­e­cute those cas­es. Etcheco­latz was con­vict­ed in Sep­tem­ber 2006 in the same La Pla­ta cour­t­house.

The tri­als came after the Supreme Court in 2005 annulled a pair of 1980s amnesty laws block­ing pros­e­cu­tion of scores of for­mer state secu­ri­ty agents or their civil­ian allies.


One comment for “Priest guilty in ‘Dirty War’ trial”

  1. tru­ly mas­ter­ful delin­eation which tran­scends and includes both struc­tur­al and “con­spir­a­cy” analy­sis.

    Posted by ironcloudz | July 12, 2009, 12:07 pm

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