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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Between 1976 and 1983, the military dictatorship in Argentina kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of people. In the early 2000s, many direct perpetrators and high-ranking officials were brought before courts. However, many dictatorship crimes remain unresolved today, especially with respect to cases of corporate involvement in crimes of the military dictatorship. ECCHR has since its establishment been supporting cases examining corporate liability and high-ranking military officials in Argentina. 

The proceedings against managers of Mercedes Benz Argentina, sugar company Ledesma and mining company Minera Aguilar SA show that dictatorship crimes always also have an economic dimension. In those cases, company employees supported Argentine security forces in abducting trade unionists and other staff members. These actions likely amounted to aiding and abetting the crimes of the dictatorship in order to further their own business interests.

ECCHR submitted legal briefs in ongoing proceedings against Mercedes Benz, Ledesma and Minera Aguilar arguing that the Argentine government and judiciary are obliged to hold economic actors liable for their role in human rights abuses committed during the military dictatorship.

Alongside these cases, Wolfgang Kaleck, founder and general secretary of ECCHR, has for many years been involved in litigation in the case of German citizen Elisabeth Käsemann. Käsemann, who had been politically active in the opposition to the Argentine military dictatorship, was kidnapped and tortured in 1977. The exact circumstances of her death have never been properly examined. 


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