THE BASILICA OF NUESTRA SENORA DE LA MERCED CASE: CASE NOTE OF SIDERIDES, MARCELO AND OTHERS CONCERNING DAMAGE TO CULTURAL HERITAGE IN ARGENTINA.

Author:Martinez, Sebastian Green
 
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The Jesuit Block and Estancias of Cordoba, Argentina, was built in the mid-eighteenth century by the Jesuit society of the former province of Paraguay, now at the centre of the Argentine Republic. It is considered to be a fair example of the Jesuit community of the time, representing its religious, political, economic, legal and cultural system. (1) An important part of the Jesuit Block is the Basilica of Nuestra Senora de la Merced, a temple of remarkable cultural value. The Basilica was declared a National Historic Monument in 1941 by Presidential Decree (2) and, together with the Jesuit Block, was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2000. (3)

In November 2011, Mr Marcelo Siderides, the priest in charge of the Basilica, engaged a group of architects, members of the 'Marina Waisman' Architecture Institute of the Catholic University of Cordoba. The aim of the project was to install a central air-conditioning system, which required the removal of the historic floorings of the temple and the excavation of trenches of approximately one metre wide and more than 60 centimetres deep along the entire building. While digging the trenches, the workers disturbed the graves of the historic benefactors of the temple. (4) Witnesses claimed that these remains were removed and disposed of in a field nearby. The Federal Prosecutor filed a criminal complaint against Mr Siderides and the architects involved. Although the First Instance Court (District Court) found that the project had not been approved by the competent Argentine authorities, the contrary was demonstrated before the Court of Appeals. Thus, Mr Siderides and the architects involved were acquitted. Both decisions are summarised in the present case note.

FIRST INSTANCE CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS

The First Instance Federal Judge observed that the criminal complaint against Mr Siderides was based on his:

character as the priest in charge of the Merced church [...] being, thus, responsible for hiring suitable professionals, owner of the project and in charge of protecting the integrity of the Basilica as a piece of our Cultural Heritage from any serious consequence that could arise from the restoration works (5) The Judge observed that, according to the prosecutor, the integrity of the Basilica was seriously affected by the trenches dug in its interior, the destruction of the floorings that were "historic, authentic and a part of the temple as a whole and, thus, they were Cultural and Historical Heritage ... [and] a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site." (6) During a preliminary hearing, the priest, Mr Siderides, claimed that he had not destroyed any part of the Basilica and that, at all times, he had been acting in accordance with the instructions of public and private entities, including those of the Argentine Commission on Museums, Monuments and Historical Sites (Comision Nacional de Museos y de Monumentos y Lugares Historicos', hereinafter the 'Argentine Cultural Heritage Commission'). (7) The defendant also argued that he genuinely believed that he had succeeded in protecting the heritage of the Basilica, and he saw no way in which he could have prejudiced it. (8)

The Judge also considered that the renovations, particularly those that affected the resting place of the benefactors of the Basilica, had been carried out:

through the illegitimate execution of excavations [...] with elements like pikes and shovels, showing no method or technique appropriate to archaeological sciences, and without resorting to photographic support, or sketches. (9) Against this backdrop, the Judge concluded that, pursuant to Article 184(5) of Law No. 25.743, (10) Mr Siderides and the architects were prima facie responsible for the crime of causing damage to monuments of historical nature. (11) The defence appealed against this decision.

REVERSAL BY THE COURT OF APPEALS

Chamber A of the Federal Court of Appeals, sitting in Cordoba, delivered its decision on the appeal in June 2017. (12) In it, the three judges unanimously reversed the decision of the Judge in the lower court to indict Mr Siderides (auto de...

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