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Cablegate: Argentina Convicts Priest for Human Rights

VZCZCXYZ0012
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHBU #2033/01 2841653
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 111653Z OCT 07
FM AMEMBASSY BUENOS AIRES
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 9467
INFO RUEHAC/AMEMBASSY ASUNCION 6632
RUEHBR/AMEMBASSY BRASILIA 6509
RUEHCV/AMEMBASSY CARACAS 1549
RUEHLP/AMEMBASSY LA PAZ OCT LIMA 2190
RUEHMN/AMEMBASSY MONTEVIDEO 6841
RUEHSG/AMEMBASSY SANTIAGO 0843
RHMFIUU/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHINGTON DC
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC
RHMCSUU/FBI WASHINGTON DC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS BUENOS AIRES 002033

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PGOV PREL KJUS AR
SUBJECT: ARGENTINA CONVICTS PRIEST FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
VIOLATIONS FROM THE 1970S DIRTY WAR


-------
Summary
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1. (U) Christian Von Wernich, a Roman Catholic priest and
ex-chaplain of the Buenos Aires Police during Argentina's
1976-1983 Dirty War, was convicted October 9 of being an
accomplice in several cases of murder, torture and illegal
imprisonment. Von Wernich is the third ex-military official
from the Dirty War period and first ecclesiastical figure to
be tried and convicted of such crimes since the 2005
Argentina Supreme Court decision voiding immunity for
ex-military personnel. The local leadership of the Catholic
Church issued a press statement calling on Von Wernich to
repent and seek public forgiveness, and noted the church's
past requests for forgiveness and societal reconciliation.
End Summary.

-----------------------------
Von Wernich Guilty As Charged
-----------------------------

2. (U) Christian Von Wernich, ex-chaplain of the Buenos
Aires police force during Argentina's 1976-1983 Dirty War
(when the police were under the supervision of the military),
was convicted October 9 for the role he played in seven
murders, 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings. La Plata's
First Federal Tribunal determined Von Wernich played a
pivotal role in the system of illegal repression that
operated in Buenos Aires province, abusing the confession
procedure to elicit information from detainees held in secret
cells before turning them over to face torture, murder or
"disappearance." The three-member tribunal condemned Von
Wernich's actions as part of the "genocide" committed in
Argentina during the Dirty War years. The tribunal sentenced
Von Wernich to life in prison.

3. (U) Von Wernich is the third ex-military official from
the period of Argentina's Dirty War, and the first
ecclesiastical authority, to be prosecuted and convicted
since the 2005 Argentine Supreme Court decision that declared
unconstitutional immunity protections for Dirty War
ex-military officials. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Relatives of the alleged tortured or "disappeared," human
rights activists and others outside the Mar del Plata
courthouse cheered the verdict, some citing decades of work
that finally culminated in Von Wernich's conviction.
President Kirchner and other GOA officials praised the court
decision.

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The Catholic Church Weighs In
-----------------------------

4. (U) Following the verdict, the Buenos Aires Archdiocese
of the Roman Catholic Church issued a press statement calling
on Von Wernich to repent and publicly seek forgiveness. The
Archdiocese said the Argentine Catholic Church was disturbed
by the pain caused by one of its priests' participation in
such serious crimes. The statement added that the
prosecution of the crimes should be a step toward Argentine
reconciliation and serve as a wake up call for citizens to
put elements of impunity, hate and spite behind them. The
bishops also touched on a self-critical diocese statement
issued in 1997, reminding that church leadership and
laypersons alike involved in these or similar crimes acted on
their own responsibility. October 11 press reports indicate
that the Church will initiate its own internal proceedings,
possibly to defrock Von Wernich.

-------
Comment
-------

5. (SBU) Von Wernich's conviction and sentencing are a
significant milestone in Argentina's ongoing efforts to seek
justice in the cases of major human rights violations from
the 1970s. They also draw attention to the support given by

Roman Catholic clergy to both sides in the Dirty War. Many
on the political left allege the Church was complicit with
atrocities committed by the state and believe the Church has
failed to account or atone for its actions. As noted above,
the Church has not yet disciplined nor defrocked Von Wernich
but has sought to distance itself from the unauthorized,
maverick operations of rogue priests. Nonetheless, at a time
when some observers consider Roman Catholic primate Cardinal
Bergoglio to be a leader of the opposition to the Kirchner
administration because of his comments about social issues,
the Von Wernich case could also have the effect, some
believe, of undermining the Church's (and, by extension,
Cardinal Bergoglio's) moral authority or capacity to comment
on political, social or economic questions.
WAYNE

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