Thu, Oct 11, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Priest gets life over role in Argentine `dirty war'

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

Former police chaplain Christian Von Wernich, who is the first Roman Catholic priest to be charged for crimes committed under Argentina's dictatorship, reacts after the verdict was read in a trial in La Plata, Argentina, on Tuesday, that focused attention on the Church's role in the military's ``dirty war'' on opponents.

PHOTO: AP

An Argentine tribunal sentenced a Roman Catholic priest to life in prison on Tuesday for conspiring with the military in murders and kidnapping during the country's "dirty war" against leftist opponents, in a case that has become for many a powerful symbol of the Church's complicity with the former regime.

The Reverend Christian von Wernich, who worked as a police chaplain during the military dictatorship, was found guilty of involvement in seven murders, 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings. He is the first Catholic priest prosecuted in connection with human rights violations in Argentina, where at least 12,000 people were killed during the military regime from 1976 to 1983.

Seconds after the sentence was read, hundreds of protesters cheered and fireworks were shot off outside the courthouse in La Plata, about 80km from Buenos Aires. Von Wernich, who wore a bulletproof vest in court, clasped his hands and frowned.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the junta was toppled in 1983 and democracy was restored, the trial of von Wernich has forced Argentina to confront the church's dark past during the dirty war. It illustrated how closely some Argentine priests, who had strongly aligned themselves with the power of the military, worked with the regime's leaders.

Over several months of often chilling testimony during the trial, witnesses spoke about how von Wernich was present at torture sessions in clandestine detention centers. They said he extracted confessions to help the military root out perceived enemies, while at the same time offering comforting words and hope to family members searching for loved ones who had been kidnapped by the government.

His lawyer, Juan Martin Cerolini, maintained that von Wernich had been made a "Catholic scapegoat" for those who wanted to prosecute the Church.

Von Wernich fled Argentina for Chile 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 Gonzalez.

Argentina's past stands in stark contrast to the role the Church played during other dictatorships.

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