Christian Von Wernich

15.03.2012 ( Last modified: 31.05.2016 )
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facts

Christian Federico von Wernich, who was born in 1938 and who is of German origin, became chaplain of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police in 1976.

Von Wernich was accused of having abused his position in the clergy in order to obtain information from political prisoners during confession.

One of the most serious crimes in which von Wernich was said to have participated was that of the “group of seven” (Grupo de los siete) students who he allegedly “broke” during confessions and who were later killed. It was alleged that he often visited the relatives of the seven students asking for money and telling them that their children would soon be released if they cooperated. He allegedly promised the same to the students, as in the case of Cecilia Idiart, who later was murdered.

The report “Nunca Más” (“Never Again”) produced by the National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP), contained important information about the role played by von Wernich during the repression and about his alleged complicity in torture and arbitrary detention. The report related several testimonies implicating the churchman. An Argentinean official, for instance, who had taken part in the killing of a member of the opposition in the presence of Von Wernich later testified: “Father Von Wernich saw that what had happened had shocked me, and so spoke to me telling me that what we had done was necessary; it was a patriotic act and God knew that it was for the good of the country. “

After the end of the dictatorship, von Wernich was sent by the church to the Parish of 9 July some 250 kilometres from Buenos Aires where he remained until 1996. After that, he moved to Chile where he worked as a priest in El Quisco under the false name of Cristian Gonzalez.

In 2003, he was discovered there by Hernan Brienza, a journalist who was investigating his involvement in the crimes and who was the author of “Maldito tu eres”, a book on the links between von Wernich and the repressive regime in Argentina. As a consequence, in May 2003, von Wernich resigned from all his priestly duties.

Von Wernich was arrested in 2003, after the Constitutional Court had declared as being unconstitutional the Amnesty Law (“Ley de Punto Final”) and the Due Obedience Law (“Ley de Obediencia debida”).

legal procedure

Von Wernich was arrested in 2003, after the Constitutional Court had declared as being unconstitutional the Amnesty Law (“Ley de Punto Final”) and the Due Obedience Law (“Ley de Obediencia debida”).

He was put under investigation in two different criminal procedures, both of which were conducted by Judge Arnaldo Corazza from la Plata.

In 2003, as part of the first procedure, he was put under preventive detention for his possible involvement in 33 arbitrary detentions and 19 arbitrary killings.

On 29 December 2005, as part of the second procedure, judge Corazza also arraigned him on charges concerning 20 other cases of serious human rights violations: 12 cases of arbitrary detention and 8 cases of torture in the clandestine detention centres of “Puesto Vasco”, “Destacamento de Arana”, “Coti Martinez” and “Pozo de Quilmes”. This later process became known as “Camps II”, in the course of which several other persons were also to be investigated and detained.

The judge held that von Wernich’s visits to the detention centres “formed part of a devastating machinery aimed at the violation of the personal liberty and the humiliation of the persons who were illegally detained”.

The trial before the tribunal in La Plata (Argentina) began on 5 July 2007. Von Wernich denied all charges against him and refused to appear before the tribunal.

On 16 October 2007 an Argentine tribunal sentenced von Wernich to life imprisonment. He was found guilty of involvement in seven murders, 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings. He became the first Catholic priest to be prosecuted in connection with human rights violations in Argentina.

context

In December 1986, the Argentinean Parliament adopted a law called “final point,” which set a statute of limitation of 60 days for offences against international law committed in Argentina.

In May 1987, Parliament approved a second amnesty law called “due obedience,” which exempted from trial all military subordinates who had obeyed orders. This left only about thirty high-ranked military officers to face prosecution. The only crimes not covered by this law – and for which subordinates could still be tried – was theft, rape and the kidnapping of children. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of this law in June 1987.

By December 1990 the first amnesty decrees were signed.

In all, 1195 members of the military who had participated in the junta received amnesty: 730 because of the “final point” law, 379 with the “due obedience” law, 49 declared by the Supreme Court and 42 by amnesty decrees.

In mid-August 2003, the new Argentinean president, Nestor Kirchner, had the amnesty laws repealed and the absence of statutes of limitation for crimes against humanity recognized.

Prosecutions of those involved in the junta once again became possible in Argentina.

Twenty former military personnel are being held in Argentina for crimes committed within the framework of the “Condor” plan. The total number of soldiers in detention and charged under Argentinean law for human rights violations amounts to 120 – to which should be added two Argentineans held in Spain. Some of these proceedings concern cases where children were forcibly taken away at birth from their mothers who had been imprisoned for political reasons. In the opinion of the judges, the amnesty law never covered this crime. (Source: Le Monde, January 5, 2005).

On 14 June 2005, the Argentinean Supreme Court declared the Amnesty Law unconstitutional, by 7 votes in favour, 1 against and 1 abstention,– “Ley de Punto Final”; Ley 23.492-  and the Due Obedience Law – “Ley de Obediencia debida”; Ley 23.521- sanctioned by President Alfonsin in 1987. The Court maintained that these laws violated article 75, paragraph 22 of the 1994 Argentinean Constitution, which gives constitutional status to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to the Genocide Convention, to the Torture Convention and to the Inter-American Convention, among others. According to the Court, following diverse decisions by the Inter-American Court and by other international bodies, the State has an obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish those who have committed violations of the right to life, to humane treatment or those who have engaged in disappearances, an obligation which cannot be limited or abolished by the enactment of an Amnesty or Due Obedience Laws as ruled by the Inter-American Court in the case of Barrios Altos v. Peru.

This historical decision allows the domestic or international investigation, prosecution and punishment of members of the military suspected to have taken part in the torture, disappearance and/or killings of more than 30,000 persons in Argentina between 1976 and 1983.

On 20 September 2006, during the course of the trial of Miguel Etchecolatz, the court for the town of La Plata used the term “genocide” for the crimes committed by the military dictatorship (1976-1983). It was the first time these crimes were qualified as genocide by a court, just like human rights organisations had long argued they should be. This legal qualification is now contained in the judgment against former police officer Etchecolatz, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for torture, murder and abduction of opponents of the regime.

The court emphasised that the crimes were committed in the context of a genocide campaign organised by the state. For future procedures against former members of the police force and the military, this view could be of crucial importance.