In Chile, accountability for human rights abuses; Pinochet's 1998 arrest leaves military leaders vulnerable to prosecution


SANTIAGO, Chile -- The arrest of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in London a year ago has opened a quiet and long-postponed reckoning in Chile over its years of dictatorship that is finally bringing former military officers to task for the deaths or disappearances of thousands of political opponents.

Since the arrest of Pinochet, the former dictator, 25 officers have been arrested on charges of murder, torture and kidnapping, including a member of one of the juntas that helped rule the country for 17 years after 1973. And government officials privately predict that a long list of generals and other officers once thought untouchable will be arrested over the next year.

Changing attitudes

The wave of arrests is unprecedented in this country, where amnesty and avoidance have been used to grease a sometimes tenuous transition to democracy since 1990. It results from a sea change in the attitudes of Chilean judges and senior military officers that came with the arrest of Pinochet on Oct. 16 on charges of crimes against humanity.

The absence of the general, a once-towering figure who dominated Chile for two decades, and the embarrassing attention cast anew on past tortures and disappearances have put conservative military officers on the defensive and left them politically unable to block the prosecutions.

At the same time, Pinochet's repeated legal setbacks in trying to avoid extradition to Spain, where the charges were brought against him under international statutes, have encouraged more moderate military officers to acknowledge publicly for the first time that human rights abuses did indeed occur.

"The day of Pinochet's arrest last October marks a key point in Chile's transition to democracy," said Pamela Pereira, a prominent human rights lawyer. "The army now understands it has a human rights problem and that they have to do something about the disappeared."

About 3,000 people were executed or disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship, and tens of thousands more were tortured or forced into exile. Most were members of the Communist and Socialist parties as well as other political and labor groups that supported or took part in the government of the Socialist president, Salvador Allende, which was overthrown in a military coup supported by the Nixon administration.

But now a new generation of military leaders led by Gen. Ricardo Ricardo Izurieta, the army commander, has opened negotiations with human rights lawyers that senior government officials say are likely to establish, finally, the fates of many people who disappeared and identify dozens of officers suspected of ordering their torture and execution.

While human rights activists are expressing almost giddy pleasure, the shift has inspired surprisingly little excitement among most Chileans. They appear to want to jettison their painful political memories and to move forward to a more prosperous future.

The leading presidential candidates make few comments on human rights or Pinochet's fate, preferring to concentrate on economic issues. But even military officials concede that a shift toward accountability for past abuses is under way.

Confronting past abuses

Defense Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma said in an interview last week that a new attitude toward past abuses was emerging among the military high command: "You deal with it, or it will never go away. You have to confront it -- that's the changed attitude."

Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean lawyer who is executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, said, "The recent developments in the courts signify very important progress in human rights in Chile that we never dreamed of before Pinochet's arrest."

Lawyers and government officials point to a Supreme Court decision in July as the most important jolt to the military's traditional impunity -- one that has put pressure on the military high command to go to the negotiating table with human rights lawyers and religious leaders traditionally critical of the armed forces to decide how best to account for the disappeared.

The Supreme Court upheld a decision by a lower court that an amnesty declared by the former Pinochet regime to protect military officers involved in political crimes committed between the 1973 coup against Allende and March 1978 -- the period in which the worst political violence took place -- was no longer applicable to cases in which people disappeared.

The court ruled that until the bodies of the victims were accounted for, the crime committed was not murder but kidnapping -- meaning that the original crime was a continuing event that went beyond the 1978 deadline. That creative departure from previous decisions made by judges since Pinochet stepped down in 1990 has opened the way for the prosecution of retired Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark and four other army officers on kidnapping charges.

The five officers are accused of forming a helicopter-borne commando unit called the Caravan of Death that removed 75 political prisoners from military jails in the month after the 1973 coup, killed them and buried them in secret graves. The bodies of 56 of the victims have been recovered, but 19 are missing.

The Supreme Court's new interpretation could, theoretically, leave Pinochet open to prosecution for ordering disap-pearances. The general is awaiting the decision of a London magistrates court, due Friday, on whether he can be extradited to Spain to stand trial.

President Eduardo Frei has argued that the recent arrests prove that the attempts of a Spanish judge to extradite and prosecute Pinochet are unnecessary because he could now just as easily stand trial in Chile. A senior Chilean judge has even sent him questions about his involvement in various crimes and is awaiting a response that could be used in a future trial.

Human rights activists remain skeptical, however, in part because no judge here has challenged the parliamentary immunity against prosecution Pinochet has as a senator-for-life.

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