ROME (AP) — Italy’s justice minister has approved extraditing an Italian priest sought by Argentina on charges of murder and torture during that country’s last military dictatorship, but the priest has an appeal in Italian courts seeking to block extradition, a lawyer and rights groups said Thursday.
Attorney Arturo Salerni, who represents Argentina, told The Associated Press that Justice Minister Carlo Nordio on Wednesday signed off on the request to extradite the Rev. Franco Reverberi, an 85-year-old priest who served as military chaplain during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
However, according to an Italian human rights group monitoring the case, Reverberi is appealing his extradition to Italy’s top criminal court and a ruling isn’t expected for weeks.
The Argentine Embassy in Rome issued a statement Thursday evening confirming the approval of the extradition as well as Reverberi’s appeal that has put the process on hold.
Due to a clerical error, the justice minister was unaware of the appeal when he issued his ruling Wednesday, explained Jorge Ithurburu, who represents the March 24 human rights advocacy group. Even if the top court rejects Reverberi’s appeal, the justice minister would have to rule again on his extradition, Ithurburu said.
“The submission of the appeal by the defendant constitutes a legitimate exercise of their right to defense, and this embassy will continue to participate in the extradition trial to obtain the confirmation of the sentence,” Argentina’s embassy said.
The justice ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for details. There was no answer Thursday evening at the office of the Italian lawyer who filed the appeal.
Meanwhile, Reverberi must sign in every day at the local police station in Sorbolo, a small town in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region where he was born and where he occasionally says Mass, Salerni said.
Reverberi, who holds Italian citizenship, is sought for trial in Argentina for charges including the 1976 slaying of 22-year-old José Guillermo Berón and the torture of several other men, Salerni said.
The alleged torture took place in the town of San Rafael, near Mendoza, Argentina, Salerni said.
Reverberi left Argentina in 2011 after the first trial for crimes against humanity carried out during the dictatorship took place in the western Mendoza province and “the testimonies of survivors and family members began to point to his responsibility,” according to Argentina’s government.
“We’re interested (in) where the body was buried,” Ithurburu said in a telephone interview. “We’re hoping the priest would know,” so the family can be informed, he added.
Human rights activists say as many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship.
The decision by Italy’s justice ministry “reflects a shared vision by both countries regarding crimes against humanity and a joint commitment to fighting against impunity. Moreover, it sets an important precedent for the bilateral relationship in terms of commitment to memory, truth, and justice,” the Argentine Embassy said.
The Catholic church’s hierarchy in Argentina has been widely criticized for being allied with Argentina’s military regime that ran a campaign to illegally detain and kill people it deemed “subversive.” When Pope St. John Paul II visited the country in 1987, critics lamented his failure to decry church support for military rulers, especially since the pontiff had just arrived from Chile, where he had denounced the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
During the current papacy of Pope Francis, who is Argentine, the Vatican and bishops in his homeland finished cataloging their archives from the military dictatorship with the goal of making them available to victims and their relatives who have long accused church members of being complicit with the military dictatorship.
Reverberi emigrated from Italy to Argentina when he was about seven years old, said Ithurburu. The rights group he heads takes its name from the date March 24 in 1976, when a U.S.-backed coup in Argentina installed a military government.
Associated Press writers Daniel Politi and Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.