Argentina’s Father von Wernich gets life in “dirty war” killings

Former Buenos Aires provincial police chaplain Christian von Wernich was sentenced to life imprisonment Oct. 9 for crimes against humanity committed under the 1976-83 military dictatorship. Human Rights Secretrary Eduardo L. Duhalde hailed the verdict as “historic and strictly legal.” The first clergyman to be convicted in atrocities carried out during Argentina’s “dirty war” against left-wing dissidents, von Wernich was found guilty of every charge against him, including seven counts of murder (as “co-author”), 41 of kidnapping and 32 of torture.

The reading of the verdict at a courthouse in La Plata was delayed nearly an hour by a bomb scare which turned out to be a false alarm. Seconds after the sentence was read, hundreds of protesters cheered and fireworks were shot off outside the courthouse. Father von Wernich, who wore a bulletproof vest in court, clasped his hands and frowned.

Von Wernich, 69, based his defense on claims that he had only performed his sacramental and pastoral duties at detention centers, and included a call for reconciliation in his final plea. But he also called those testifying against him “false witnesses who are diabolical… riddled with malice, conceiving evil and giving birth to lies.” Over 70 witnesses, including 41 clandestine detention center survivors, testified at the 96-day trial.

His lawyer, Juan Martín Cerolini, said that the trial had “violated the principle of equality before the law just as the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials had done beforehand.” Cerolini said that the Nuremberg defendants, like his own client, had been “selected on the basis of criteria with no definition in jurisprudence and accused on the basis of flimsy evidence.” Cerolini said Father von Wernich had been made a “Catholic scapegoat” for those who wanted to persecute the church.

But legal official Alejandro Slokar argued that the absence of genocide and crimes against humanity from Argentina’s Criminal Code should not confer impunity on the perpetrators, calling for the incorporation of these crimes into the code as “a debt to the international community.” Because of these judicial failings, von Wernich could not be convicted directly for genocide, Slokar lamented—although the charges noted that the crimes took place in the “context of genocide.”

Father von Wernich fled Argentina for Chile after the return to democracy in 1983, but was found in 2003 in the seaside town of El Quisco by a group of journalists and human rights advocates. He was working as a priest under the name Christian González.

Von Wernich’s conviction was hailed across the political spectrum, including by the two main opposition presidential candidates Elisa Carrió and Roberto Lavagna. Both rival wings of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo also hailed the verdict as “historic.” New York Consul Héctor Timerman, the son of the late journalist and former political prisoner Jacobo Timerman, said that the verdict “opens a new path to end impunity.”

Argentina’s Catholic synod issued a statement saying, “The Argentine Church is deeply moved by the grief caused us by the participation of a priest in heinous crimes,” and called for a “path of reconciliation to draw us away from impunity and hatred and rancour.” (NYT, Buenos Aires Herald, Oct. 10)

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