Pope to Catholic jurists: Respect basic human rights

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis told Catholic jurists on Friday that they must strongly defend basic human rights in their work, even as his own prosecutors stand accused of violating the basic rights of the defense in a big Vatican fraud trial.

In a meeting with Italian Catholic jurists, Francis said recognizing and protecting the rights of the weakest in a court setting doesn’t stem from a governing concession, but rather from recognition of the dignity that every human being enjoys.

“The respect of the person and human rights, especially on the continent that doesn’t hesitate to promote them to the world, must always be safeguarded, and the dignity of everyone placed before everything,” Francis said, citing his own speech a few days ago to migrants in Greece.

Francis’ comments, and before him those of the Vatican secretary of state, focused on protecting the rights of the poor, the sick and the weak in legal settings. But they came as the Vatican trial of 10 people, including a cardinal, is poised to resume next week amid fresh defense arguments that Vatican City’s prosecutors violated basic rights of the defendants.

The trial concerns the Vatican’s 350-million-euro investment in a London property deal. Prosecutors accuse some Vatican officials and Italian businessmen of fleecing the Holy See and of extorting 15 million euros from it to get control of the property. Francis’ own role in the deal has come under scrutiny since several witnesses have said he approved negotiating an exit deal with the businessman accused of extortion.

Already, the tribunal president has ordered prosecutors to throw out their indictments for four of their suspects and start over because they failed to respect basic procedural steps during the investigation meant to protect the rights of the accused.

The tribunal president has also repeatedly ordered prosecutors to turn over to the defense the videotaped recordings of a key suspect-turned-star witness so the suspects can adequately prepare their defense. The prosecutors initially refused, then deposited most of the tapes but with cuts that in some cases amounted to an hour. The tribunal president is due to rule next week on defense demands that the complete tapes be turned over.

Excerpts of those tapes were leaked to an Italian newspaper last week, prompting nine defense lawyers to denounce the leaks as the latest violation of defense rights. Their joint statement suggested they believe the leak may have come from the prosecutors’ office itself.

The prosecutors’ two-year investigation was marked by several leaks to Italian media from unnamed “judicial sources,” most of them targeting the lone cardinal on trial, Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

Francis, who as an absolute monarch wields supreme legislative, judicial and executive power in the Vatican, forced Becciu to resign and publicly stripped him of his rights and privileges as a cardinal, based on what he said was an accusation of embezzlement. Becciu’s downfall came nearly a year before he was indicted on the embezzlement accusation and other charges. Becciu denies wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have insisted they respect the defense rights and have expressed incredulousness at the defense motions, while acknowledging some procedural errors. While initially promising to turn over the tapes to the defense, the prosecutors then argued that doing so would compromise privacy and could lead to leaks. More recently, they said they needed to cut the tapes to preserve the integrity of ongoing new investigations.

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