Sat, Jul 07, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Argentine priest goes on trial for `Dirty War' work


A former police chaplain went on trial on Thursday, the first Roman Catholic cleric to be prosecuted on charges of complicity in deaths and disappearances during Argentina's 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship.

Christian 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 had collaborated with police torturers and provided security agents with information he obtained from prisoners while giving "spiritual assistance" at clandestine detention centers.

Prosecutor Sergio Franco alleged that Von Wernich had "direct contact" with detainees and even inflicted psychological "torments" on victims being held in illegal confinement and subject to physical torture by police repressors.

Von Wernich, who was arrested in 2003, declined to make an opening statement on the advice of his lawyer, who vehemently rejected the charges and promised a vigorous defense.

Nearly 13,000 people are officially listed as killed or missing in the dictatorship's crackdown on dissent, known as the "Dirty War." Human rights groups say the toll is closer to 30,000.

Scores of former state security agents and their civilian allies have been called to testify in investigations after the Supreme Court in 2005 annulled a pair of 1980s amnesty laws sheltering them from prosecution.

The head of the three-judge panel, Carlos Rozanski, said the court was taking unprecedented steps to protect prosecution witnesses in Von Wernich's trial.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who has made human rights a priority of his government, called the trial another step toward achieving justice for past abuses.

Kirchner said he expected "justice but not vengeance" to be meted out.

"There are priests ... who give honor to their country and their church and then there are priests, who thank God, are held accountable by the justice system," said Kirchner, adding Von Wernich had "dishonored the church."

But a group supportive of right-wing former military officers said the trial was a farce and that former leftist guerrillas responsible for past political violence were not being subjected to prosecution.

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