From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Torture victim's testimony may help get justice for "disappeared" in
05 Feb 2001 12:38:53
Note #6371 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
Torture victim's testimony may help get justice for "disappeared" in
Presbyterian minister appears in Nuremberg courtroom
by Alexa Smith
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- After testifying for more than four hours in Nuremberg,
Germany, about the disappearance of a young German woman in Argentina's
"dirty war," the Rev. Diana Austin is finally back home.
"There was this joy of being back," she said, admitting that even a
hailstorm at New York City’s JFK Airport didn't spoil her happiness to be
safely home with her two teenage children. "We lifted our hands up to the
sky and said, 'I love New York.'
"My God," she said, "it is good to be home."
It was an intense trip that was pastoral as well as political.
Austin is one of two living witnesses who can confirm the abduction and
torture of Elisabeth Kaesemann in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 8, 1977.
Kaesemann is one of 92 Germans killed -- but hers is the only body Argentina
has ever exhumed from a mass grave and returned to its family for burial in
For the other 91 -- about half of them young Jews whose German-born parents
fled to Argentina to escape the Nazis -- there are no bodies and no
witnesses; only a history of a brutal military regime that resorted to
torture and extra-judicial execution to repress opposition, ideological or
otherwise, for seven years.
A coalition of humanitarian groups in Germany is now pushing the country’s
chief prosecutor to indict 41 Argentinean military officials for crimes
against humanity, although no one expects the Argentinean government to
extradite the officers to Germany for trial, because of a general amnesty
declared there years ago. Indictment would, however, confine the accused to
Argentina or put them at risk of arrest.
Spain, Italy, France and Sweden reportedly have issued indictments.
The coalition also wants an apology from the German government for its
failure to help German citizens who were trapped in Argentine concentration
"In the case of Elisabeth Kaesemann, there are persons still alive who saw
her. In the other cases, there are only dead people," said Roland Beckert of
Freiburg, one of four attorneys representing the Coalition Against Impunity.
“We are quite sure they were killed by the Argentinean (military), but
nobody saw them alive in their hands. That's why the Kaesemann case is very
important. It is a case of its own. But it will push the other cases, and it
will be the first to get justice.
"Perhaps then, with the other cases, justice will come."
Austin testified that Kaesemann was held in a torture chamber next to her
own and that torturers went back and forth between the rooms, confirming
information. Austin was interrogated and beaten for 14 hours. She was then
released in the custody of four military officers who raped and beat her for
two days and nights and then ordered her out of the country.
Before she left, a military official confirmed that Kaesemann was still in
custody, although no actual charges had been filed against her. She was
being held, he said, because of "ideological differences."
An Argentine ex-patriot, Elena Alfaro, then told the German prosecutor that
Kaesemann was confined to the concentration camp where she was held -- both
women hooded and manacled to wooden beds. When their wrists became so thin
that they were able to slip out of the handcuffs, the two prisoners lifted
each others' hoods and talked, Alfaro said.
According to Alfaro, Kaesemann was executed with a group of prisoners that
were listed in Argentinean newspapers as terrorists.
However, an autopsy that the family had performed in Germany indicated that
Kaesemann had been shot in her back and neck. Kaesemann had turned 30 in a
"There have been a lot of lies," said Eva Teufel, Kaesemann's sister and
the spokesperson for the Kaesemann family, who argue that economic interests
have kept the German government from pursuing more information about her
sister's death 24 years ago. Her father, Ernst Kaesemann, a prominent German
theologian, is dead now, as is his wife. They devoted years to trying to get
the facts about their youngest daughter's disappearance and death.
"We feel better, now that we know the truth," Teufel said, adding that
Austin and Alfaro were able to debunk the lie that Kaesemann was a terrorist
and confirm that she was captured and killed by the Argentine government.
"From the lies, we come now to truth. We know that she was killed and
tortured when she was not guilty. We are sure now. We were sure, always. But
we couldn't prove it.
"Now, with Diana and Elena, we can prove it."
For Austin, helping the Kaesemann family heal was her most important task.
She did so by filling in the gaps about Elisabeth and what happened to her:
telling them what she liked and didn't like; what films she enjoyed; what
she did with her friends. She also told them that Kaesemann and Austin had
forged papers to get endangered people out of Argentina – a fact that Austin
believes Kaesemann never gave up under torture -- or else Austin herself
would never have been freed.
The two women believed their work was like that of German Christians who
helped Jews escape the Nazis.
Alfaro was able to fill in gaps for the Kaesemanns and Austin, who never
knew how she was abducted or where she was taken after she was transferred
from the torture center. A friend, who also was tortured, apparently had
given the security forces her name.
Alfaro, pregnant at the time, was kept in the camps for eight months. On
her release she was forced into a sexual relationship with an Argentine
military officer. She was married to an Argentine journalist who was
executed in the same group as Kaesemann. Alfaro eventually escaped to
France, where she lives now.
"The testimony was so chilling," Austin said of Alfaro's story of her life
in the camps with Kaesemann.
Austin testified in Nuremberg for more than four hours, breaking down once
when the prosecutor went over details from reports she filed years ago and
hadn't reviewed since. She had forgotten some of the details of the rapes
and beatings; now they are painfully part of her consciousness again.
"In the Kaesemann case, I think they will eventually get justice," Austin
told the Presbyterian News Service after her return. "At least an apology
will happen ... (and they may) order the arrest of these 41 guys on the
list. I think it will happen. I do. I believe they will act on the Kaesemann
case. The other 91? I'm less certain."
Austin's ticket to the United States was bought jointly by the National
Council of Churches of Christ (NCC) and the Presbyterian Church (USA), the
denomination in which she is now a pastor. When she left Argentina, she was
told to keep silent because her family still lived in Argentina.
Austin, the elder Kaesemann, Robert McAfee Brown and Dorothee Soelle worked
from New York and Germany for Kaesemann's release.
Amnesty International says the Argentine government has documented 8,960
"disappearances," but admits that the actual figure may be much higher. One
Argentine report had identified 340 clandestine detention centers.
Some human-rights groups says the death toll could be as high as 30,000.
"I'm rejoicing in going back to doing my work," Austin said of her return
to her parish. "I guess my biggest satisfaction has to do with the Kaesemann
family. My role there was pastoral. There was a lot of information needed, a
lot of healing.
"The attorney said that I put a human face on the case (for the
prosecutor)," she said. "That's hard to do when a case is 24 years old."
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