Justice at last: Judgment in the Elisabeth Käsemann case

Argentina – Military dictatorship – Käsemann

After more than 18 months of hearings, the 4th Criminal Chamber of the Buenos Aires Federal Court has announced its judgment in the criminal case El Vesubio. Ruling on the murder of German citizen, Elisabeth Käsemann, the court sentenced Héctor Humberto Gamen and Ricardo Néstor Martínez to 20 years imprisonment and six months imprisonment respectively.


Käsemann, a young German citizen, moved to Argentina in 1968/9. Following an initial period of political engagement, she joined the resistance after the beginning of the military dictatorship (24 March 1976). Following her abduction on 9 March 1977, German campaigners lobbied for her release. Their battle failed, due at least in part to the Federal Government's refusal to approach the Military Junta.

Käsemann’s body was found on the night of 23 May, close to Monte Grande. She had been heavily tortured. The Argentine government claimed she had been killed during a firefight between the military and guerrilla fighters, but an autopsy conducted later in Germany concluded that she had been shot in the neck and back at close-range.


The main hearing in the El Vesubio case began on 26 February 2010. Represented by its own lawyer, the German embassy entered the Käsemann case as joint claimant. While highly significant, the judicial response to the Argentine dictatorship came too late for many of its participants. Both of Elisabeth Käsemann’s parents are dead, as is the German spokesperson for the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. The main defendant in the trial, Duran Saenz, also died shortly before this sentence was announced. The ceaseless efforts of the relatives, solidarity groups and lawyers who worked to achieve justice for Elisabeth Käsemann will not be forgotten. Her family, in particular her father – the Tübingen theology professor Ernst Käsemann – tried without success to persuade the then German government to commit themselves fully to Elisabeth’s case.

The Tübingen prosecutor’s office did open proceedings in 1980, but they were quickly closed. It was only later, when the Nuremberg-based human rights network Koalition gegen Straflosigkeit began to campaign for justice in Argentina, that serious investigations into the military dictatorship took place. Following their inquiries, the public prosecutor for Nuremberg-Fürth issued numerous arrest warrants against five high ranking officials, among them former Junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla. Further extradition orders followed in Germany, as did arrest warrants in Spain, and sentences in Italy and France.

Together with the ceaseless lobbying of human rights activists in Argentina, these law orders contributed to the end of the official amnesty in 2003. A series of criminal proceedings began. Following the abolition of the laws, which had protected members of the military from 1986/7 onwards, a series of criminal proceedings were initiated. To date, around 150 former police and military officers have been sentenced for human rights abuses.


Käsemann case: Demonstration in front of court building in Buenos Aires
Käsemann case: Demonstration in front of court building in Buenos Aires

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The law is clear: torture is prohibited under any circumstances. Whoever commits, orders or approves acts of torture should be prosecuted. This is set out in the UN Convention against Torture which has been ratified by 146 states.

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