Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

South Americans linked to dictators curtail travel Pinochet's arrest abroad seen as risky precedent


SANTIAGO, Chile -- Sergio Fernandez, the man in charge of Chile's internal affairs under Augusto Pinochet, swears he is not nervous about his future.

"Of course, I'm not afraid to travel. I'm going anywhere I want," the one-time interior minister insisted after his former boss was arrested in London.

Not everyone is feeling as confident as Fernandez. In Chile, Argentina and other South American nations, military officials and other collaborators with former dictatorships are asking themselves: Who's next?

Pinochet, charged with overseeing the executions and disappearances of more than 3,000 leftists in Chile, did not act alone. Over the 17 years of his regime, hundreds or perhaps thousands of his officers and soldiers carried out tortures and murders throughout the country.

Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who ordered Pinochet's arrest, has issued a list of 135 other Chileans he wants detained for questioning as part of his investigation into crimes commited during South America's era of "Dirty Wars."

Among them are some of Chile's most prominent senators, lawyers and top military officials, including Fernandez.

"Nobody's traveling," said Evelyn Matthei, a right-wing congresswoman who is not on the list. "They're building a Berlin Wall around us."

Another Garzon list contains the names of 153 Argentines wanted in connection with that country's murderous dictatorship. Between 10,000 and 30,000 leftists died in Argentina, some pushed alive from airplanes and others murdered after giving birth to babies that were stolen by military families.

Other leftists perished under right-wing military regimes in Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil. In those countries, former leaders and their troops face the possibility of foreign charges.

For hundreds of South Americans linked to former dictatorship-era abuses, foreign travel no longer seems so attractive, and fears are growing that Pinochet might not be the only one to land in custody.

"Now nobody can be secure or relax. Anybody could be sought," said Alberto Cardemil, a former Pinochet spokesman. "It's barbaric. It brings us back to Inquisition times."

Human rights advocates believe the broad net being cast over South America is the only chance to win justice in a region where amnesties, pardons and constitutional protections have kept most killers out of jail.

"I hope this will persuade local judges to pursue investigations and identify perpetrators, maybe even based on information we'll learn as part of the Pinochet prosecution," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch/Americas.

"The world is watching," he said. "I have no doubt Pinochet's main contribution will be the development and enforcement of international human rights standards.

Argentina, unlike Chile, has prosecuted the top leaders of its Dirty War. Former dictator Jorge Videla and other top military officials spent several years in prison before being pardoned by the current president, Carlos Menem.

Many are facing new charges. Videla and two members of his military junta -- Emilio Massera and Antonio Vadek -- are being held in Argentina on charges of stealing newborn children of detainees who gave birth in torture camps.

Child kidnapping and other crimes against children are excluded from Argentina's otherwise broad military amnesty.

Videla also faces a Swiss arrest warrant for his role in the 1977 kidnapping and murder of Alexei Jaccard, a Swiss-Chilean citizen seized in Buenos Aires.

In Chile, Pinochet faces 18 civil lawsuits involving deaths and disappearances during his regime, many of them filed since his arrest in London.

While a military amnesty prevents the prosecution of crimes committed from 1973 to 1978 -- the height of atrocities in Chile -- about 20 military officials have been jailed for crimes after 1978, including an infamous secret police massacre of suspects in an assassination attempt on Pinochet.

Bringing officials to trial in Chile has proved nearly impossible, largely because military tribunals charged with prosecuting military crimes have refused the cases or expanded the amnesty to include them.

Chile's military amnesty, unlike Argentina's, also was put into effect before any trials were held, which has left the country short of information for further prosecutions.

"Our amnesty is amnesia. It says you have to forget what happened," said Sofia Prats, whose father Carlos Prats, Allende's military commander, was murdered while in exile in Argentina.

New trials -- in Chile or internationally -- are key to finding out the truth about those who died or disappeared, say human rights officials. They hope newly declassified U.S. intelligence documents being used in the Pinochet case may provide key evidence against other human rights violators.

"I think what's happening with Pinochet will create a climate to finally resolve this," said Carolina Toha, a political scientist whose father, Jose Toha, died of malnutrition after being held in a Pinochet concentration camp.

The 6-foot 5-inch Toha, an interior and defense minister under the deposed socialist president, Salvador Allende, weighed 110

pounds at the time of his death, his daughter said.

"It's now more probable we'll have prosecutions inside Chile as well as internationally," she said. "I think nationally and internationally, the system that's been so imperfect at prosecuting these kinds of crimes will improve."

Pub Date: 12/15/98

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad