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Argentine Priest Held in 'Dirty War' Case

August 07, 2003|From Reuters

BUENOS AIRES — Argentine authorities detained a Roman Catholic priest Wednesday and accused him of helping police and army torturers extract information from leftists during a 1976-83 dictatorship.

Under Argentine law a judge must decide in the next few days whether to press criminal charges against the Rev. Christian von Wernich, a former police chaplain who has been the target of street protests over the last decade.

Von Wernich is one of the best known Argentine priests accused by state prosecutors of collaborating with the military during the "dirty war" against leftists, which left up to 30,000 people dead.

"Part of the accusation is for extracting information from detainees to make them 'pay for their sins,' " said Alicia Peralta, a lawyer for the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights that is representing many of the victims' families.

Von Wernich was not available for comment but court officials, who confirmed his detention, said he had denied being involved.

In testimony to government commissions, victims have accused the priest of trying to make detainees give information to the police and military. Victims said he befriended them, tried to become their confidant and urged them to collaborate with their torturers, Peralta said.

The detention may revive controversy about the Roman Catholic Church's role during the dictatorship. Some rights groups say the church failed to adequately protest against the widespread rights abuses.

Military rights abuses have been increasingly in the spotlight under newly elected President Nestor Kirchner. His government has pressed for military officials to finally face court trials here or abroad after years of being protected by amnesty and extradition laws.

Dozens of officers have been arrested over the last month and await possible extradition to Spain on accusations of killing Spanish citizens.

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