Argentinian priest on trial over dictatorship murders

Accused of involvement in seven murders and 41 cases of kidnapping and torture during Argentina's dictatorship period, former military chaplain Fr Christian Von Wernich is facing a trial expected to last for two months.

BBC News reports that the trial is due to begin in Argentina of one of the most notorious figures of the military government in power between 1976 and 1983.

Fr Christian Von Wernich had previously escaped prosecution under amnesty laws which were later declared unconstitutional.

Accordingt to the International Herald Tribune Fr Von Wernich, 69, wore a bulletproof vest and a priest's collar as he appeared behind a reinforced glass shield in a federal courthouse in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province.

The shouts of "assassin!" from some 200 activists protesting outside could be heard in the chamber as a clerk read charges accusing Von Wernich of collaborating with state security agents and covering up crimes in seven deaths, 31 cases of torture and 42 cases of illegal imprisonment.

The prosecution said it would call survivors to testify that Von Wernich collaborated with police torturers and provided security agents with information he obtained from prisoners while giving "spiritual assistance" at clandestine detention centers.

Fr Von Wernich was chaplain to the Buenos Aires provincial police force, and he is accused of using his office to win the trust of prisoners before passing information to the police torturers and killers who were holding them.

He is also reported to have attended a number of torture sessions himself and reassured the police that they were doing God's work.

He escaped prosecution after the democratic governments that followed the military passed amnesty laws.

Fr Von Wernich worked under a false name in Chile, but investigators tracked him down and he was arrested four years ago.

Those amnesty laws have since been declared unconstitutional and some of those responsible for the killing of an estimated 30,000 people under military rule between 1976 and 1983 are finally being brought to trial in Argentina.

But witnesses have been threatened and one, Julio Lopez, disappeared after giving evidence at a trial last year and has not been seen since.

Argentine priest in murder trial (BBC News, 6/7/07)
Ex-police chaplain goes on trial for deaths, disappearances during Argentine dictatorship (International Herald Tribune, 5/7/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Christian Federico Von Wernich (Trial Watch)
Military of Argentina (Wikipedia)

6 Jul 2007