Opening Statements

The third public trial for genocide since the repeal of the “Punto Final” (Final Stop) and “Obediencia Debida” (Due Obedience) laws has begun in La Plata.

[leer en español]

Numerous political groups, trade unions, social organizations, student groups, and human rights organizations gathered Thursday morning in front of the Federal Courthouse in La Plata, calling for justice and the punishment of the Catholic priest Christian Von Wernich for his involvement in the Argentine genocide of 1976-83. Their chants could be heard from inside the courthouse, as they demanded the return of Jorge Julio López, a key witness who disappeared last year during the trial of former Director of Investigations of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz. The demonstration took place without any incident.

High levels of security were deployed both inside and outside of the building. The perimeter was sealed off by police roadblocks, and identification checkpoints and metal detectors were utilized at all entrances. The priest entered the courtroom just after 11 AM, escorted by the SPF (Federal Penitentiary Service), handcuffed and wearing a bullet-proof vest. His lawyers, Juan Martín Cerolini and Marcelo Peña, accompanied him throughout the day’s proceedings. The clerk of Federal Court Nº 1, Dr. Rubén Aller, read the requisition, formally introducing the case and outlining the charges raised against Von Wernich. Later on, the prosecution asked to extend the charges against Von Wernich to also include accusations of “genocide” and “high treason,” a request which was denied by the court.

Protective measures inside the courthouse included a large glass screen which protected Von Wernich from being pelted with pots of yoghurt, as occurred following his initial incarceration. This was not Von Wernich´s first appearance in the Federal Courthouse, as he had already been heard here by doctors Leopoldo Schiffrin and Reboredo of the Federal Appeals Court, as a part of the ongoing “Juicio por la Verdad” (Trial for the Truth).

The Audience
The National Secretary for Human Rights, Eduardo Luis Duhalde, his peer from Buenos Aires, Edgardo Binstock, political leaders Patricia Walsh and Luis Zamora, as well as trade union leaders from the CTA (Argentine Work Confederation) were all present at the first hearing.
In the first rows of the courtroom were members of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, relatives of the victims, and a few survivors who were kidnapped during the dictatorship. To the left—also in the first row—was the audience invited by Von Wernich, which included his most loyal supporter, Cecilia Pando. The wife of dismissed army major Rafael Mercado, Pando has been a fervent defender of the actions of soldiers that participated in one of the most savage dictatorships in Latin American history.

The Charges
Public prosecutors Carlos Dulau Dumm and Félix Crous have assured that they can demonstrate Von Wernich’s “conspicuous intervention” in the so-called “Camps Circuit” of Clandestine Detention Centers (CDCs) that operated during the military dictatorship. As was read by the clerk Thursday, it is the prosecution’s view that it has been proven that Von Wernich participated in “verifiable activity in several clandestine detention centers, in which he maintained direct contact with victims and tortured them, primarily through psychological and moral means.” They argue that Von Wernich during his involvement worked primarily to obtain information from prisoners and to silence their families’ appeals and calls for help.

The prosecution concluded Thursday with the assertion that “whatever activity [Von Wernich] was engaged in…according to Article 45 of the Penal Code, he is at the least responsible of primary complicity, or—under a remote and very lenient hypothesis—of secondary complicity.”

The Recess and Cecilia’s “Circus”
Accompanied by one woman and three men, long-time supporter Cecilia Pando remained next to the priest in the courtroom throughout the day, her dismay at times being visibly apparent. During the recess, she took the opportunity to vent her frustration and defend Von Wernich in front of the cameras, referring to the trial as “a Roman circus,” and asking “what [the prosecutors] have against the father?”

After the Recess – A Statement by Von Wernich
Around 2 PM, after the clerk had read the accusations, Von Wernich approached the witness stand, the only time he spoke Thursday. He tapped the microphone to ensure that it was working, before responding to initial questions from the presiding judge:

– “What is your full name?”
– “Christian Federico Von Wernich”
– “Do you go by any other names?”
– “Queque. Everybody knows me as Queque.”
– “And your occupation?”
– “Priest of the Roman Catholic Church.”

When asked by the judge whether he had anything to declare, Von Wernich claimed his right to remain silent: “Following instructions from my lawyer, doctor Martín Cerolini, I will not answer questions,” he stated. He further suggested that he would like to offer “two clarifications,” but the presiding judge would not allow it. Afterwards, Judge Rozanski had the priest’s two previous declarations from 2003 and 2005, which are to be incorporated in the case, read aloud. In these declarations, Von Wernich admitted to have visited Clandestine Detention Centers (CDCs), though he describes them as public and transparent military institutions where prisoners were never mistreated. He also stated that although not one of the prisoners spoke to him about torture or mistreatment, confessional confidentiality prevented him from revealing further details of the actual conversations which he had with them.
Von Wernich also claimed in these previous statements to remember some of the names of the victims currently testifying against him. Recognizing that he had interacted with witnesses Jacobo Timmerman and Juan Nazar, among others, he insisted that he had “shared [roasted meat] and played cards” with them during the military dictatorship, a claim which provoked nervous laughter in the courtroom.
High Treason and Genocide
Later in the day the claimants unified in the Justice Now initiative requested permission to submit new evidence “proving that what happened in Argentina was an organized genocide rather than a series of isolated occurrences.” Meanwhile, doctor Marcelo Ponce Nuñez, representing the joint claims of APDH La Plata and CTA, suggested that high treason and genocide should be added to the charges against Von Wernich, in accordance with international treaties. The Timerman family´s lawyer expressed his agreement with the suggestion.
Von Wernich’s Income
Though he once served as chaplain of the Directorate of Investigations of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police (verified by file Nº 14.643), Von Wernich has claimed that until his arrest in 2003, he lived solely on his income as a priest, which was paid by the Church. Now receiving a 250 peso ($83 USD) monthly pension, it is unclear how he is managing his legal fees.

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La Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos La Plata es una organización no gubernamental cuyos objetivos son: Defender los Derechos Humanos en su acepción más amplia, contribuir a su enseñanza y a su difusión, dotar a esta temática de sólidos fundamentos jurídicos y académicos con una clara visión de futuro mediante la investigación y la docencia. Llevar adelante los reclamos de Memoria, Verdad y Justicia para nuestro pueblo. Llevar adelante el Juicio por la verdad, iniciado junto a otros organismos y particulares en 1998 ante la Cámara Federal de La Plata y a las causas penales derivadas del Juicio por la Verdad.

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