Thursday 14 July 2011

Argentina: Elisabeth Kaesemann

The online edition of German weekly Der Spiegel has published an excellent article on the El Vesubio trial, which I felt it was worth translating in full:

Argentina's judges to rule on the sadists of "El Vesubio"

She was young, fought for what she believed and was brutally tortured. The German citizen Elisabeth Käsemann died 34 years ago in Argentina. Now her alleged killers are facing judgement. In a historic step, Germany is involved as a joint plaintiff in the case.

His victims describe him as a sadist. As a person who ordered the deaths of others without flinching. Who tortured with electric shocks. Who raped pregnant women. They are talking about Pedro Durán Saenz, then the head of the former torture centre “El Vesubio” in the Argentine province of Buenos Aires.

It took over 30 years to try Durán Saenz and his accomplices in Argentina, and the judgement is expected in the next few days. The public prosecutor and joint plaintiff asked for life imprisonment for him and two co-defendants. A total of eight men are in the dock. But Durán Saenz won’t hear the verdict against him: he died in June, aged 76, of heart failure.

It was a shock, including for lawyer Pablo Jacoby, who is representing Germany’s interest in the trial. The country is represented as a joint plaintiff in the case, because Durán Saenz was responsible for the death of, among others, Elisabeth Käsemann from Tübingen.

30,000 people still classed as disappeared today

He reigned over "El Vesubio" when the young woman was brought to the camp in 1977. Käsemann was regarded as „subversive“, just like many other opposition figures, intellectuals, trade unionists and students. She had come to Argentina in 1968, worked in the poor districts of Buenos Aires and had links to an underground group.

Those who knew Elisabeth Käsemann describe her as loving to travel, well-read and politically aware. On 8 March 1977, she had arranged to meet an American friend for breakfast, the friend said later, but she never arrived. She had disappeared, just like so many other supposed opponents of the regime.

30,000 people are still classed as „desaparecido“, or disappeared, today. During the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, they were abducted, murdered and thrown into unmarked graves or out of aeroplanes into the Rio de la Plata. In secret centres like “El Vesubio”, they were tortured.

Elisabeth Käsemann’s American friend was abducted too. As she was being interrogated, she heard Elisabeth’s voice and screams in the next room. She was released, but Elisabeth Käsemann was not. She was taken to El Vesubio, where Durán Saenz ruled.

Lack of help from German diplomats

What she must have suffered there has been described by survivors during the current trial. Prisoners were beaten, tortured with electric shocks, many women were raped. Some had to watch their partners being mistreated in front of them. It smelt of fear, burnt flesh and vomit.

These were the conditions in which Elisabeth Käsemann spent her 30th birthday. Those who saw her in El Vesubio describe her as very thin and seriously injured from days of torture. One prisoner recalled later how she had met the German woman. Käsemann had whispered the address of her parents to her, almost soundly. Another detainee claims to have seen her in the night of 23 Ma7 1977, being brought into the camp kitchen, bound and with a hood over her head. That was the last time she saw her.

By that time, her family had already been applying pressure to find her for weeks, with the help with the protestant church. They appealed to the foreign office. “All her parents’ efforts were ignored and treated with indifference,” wrote the Nuremberg Human Rights Center (NMRZ) later. It concluded that German diplomacy had “failed” in the Käsemann case.

Elisabeth’s father, the well-known theologian Ernst Käsemann, is bitter about the lack of help from the foreign office. “A Mercedes sold is surely worth more than a life,” he says, because back then, Argentina and Germany were doing good business. The state secretary from the foreign office, for example, negotiated the sale of a German power plant for three billion marks, while the ambassador from Bonn thought that Argentina was experiencing a “state of exception” as the “consequence of the international terror situation”. The armed forces were merely aiming to “return power to the hands of civilians”, he said.

Helping to work through the past

True, diplomats later pointed out that the Argentine ambassador in Bonn had been called into the foreign office several times about Käsemann, but the accusation still hit home. In the current trial, Argentine intellectual Osvaldo Bayer, who now lives in Germany and has made a film and published articles on Käsemann, said that “The German government had not acted very democratically”.

While Ernst Käsemann was still fighting for his daughter’s release in spring 1977, she was murdered. In the night of 23 May, she was taken, with 15 others, and killed in the early hours of the following morning. The official version: a shoot-out with guerrillas in the region of Monte Grande. Newspaper Clarín later headlined their report „16 insurgents shot dead in Monte Grande, surprised at a gathering.“ A doctor later determined that the German social worker was shot in the back at close range. The Käsemann family even had to fight to have her body returned to them – and pay 22,000 dollars.

Many people describe the behaviour of the German government back then as disreputable. The foreign office does not want to listen to such accusations anymore. Germany has become the first European country to act as joint plaintiff in a trial against the perpetrators of the “dirty war” of the Argentine military dictatorship. A historic step, in the opinion of lawyer Pablo Jacoby. “Germany is doing a lot more than other countries today.” There is a great deal of interest: members of parliament have been to visit him to learn about the case, he says.

The trial is particularly important, says a spokesperson of the foreign office, "because we want to help to work through the past." Is it also an attempt to atone for the case of Elisabeth Käsemann? The foreign office did not want to comment on the historic events, saying that they should be evaluated by historians.

Just a few stone slabs are left of the camp now

In 2003, the German judiciary issued arrest warrants for leading members of the Argentine military dictatorship, including former junta leader Jorge Videla, for involvement in the murder of Käsemann and student Manfred Zieschank from Munich. In the following years, Germany pressed for their extradition. It was intended that Pedro Durán Sáenz should answer before a German court as well.

However, in all cases the Argentine justice system decided to bring charges itself. In December last year, Videla was condemned to life imprisonment. The case of El Vesubio began in February 2010.

On the site where Duran Saenz tortured defenceless prisoners and where he actually lived, there are just a few stone slabs as a reminder today. The armed forces destroyed El Vesubio in 1978, when Argentina hosted the World Cup. They wanted to cover their tracks when a human rights commission visited the country. Nature did the rest.

But the victims have not forgotten. Those who were released, who remember the dead like Elisabeth Käsemann and can point the finger at perpetrators like Durán Saenz. It is also thanks to the survivors that there are the trial and judgement now. Even though one of those principally responsible is no longer alive to see it.

Here's the source again:
Argentiniens Richter urteilen über die Sadisten von "El Vesubio" (Spiegel)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the translation.