Human Rights Developments

On March 11, Ricardo Lagos Escobar, candidate of the center-left coalition that has governed since former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet left power in 1990, began a six-year presidential term, replacing President Eduardo Frei. His inauguration was overshadowed by Pinochet's return to Chile on March 3, after British Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered the former dictator's release on medical grounds from house arrest in England. Pinochet was detained in London on October 14, 1998, and had spent more than sixteen months in England under police guard in a secluded residence, after Spain and three other European countries requested his extradition to face trial for human rights violations. At the time of his return to Chile, Pinochet faced more than sixty domestic criminal complaints lodged since January 1998 by relatives of victims of extrajudicial executions, "disappearances," and torture, and by political parties, trade unions, and professional groups.

While Pinochet was on his way home, human rights lawyers acting for the victims made a formal request to the appeals court judge investigating the complaints, Juan Guzmán Tapia, that Pinochet be stripped of his immunity as a senator (a process known as desafuero) so that he could face trial. Under the 1980 constitution, Pinochet had awarded himself the non-elected post of lifetime senator when he stepped down as president.

On May 23, the Santiago Appeals Court voted by thirteen to nine to remove his immunity, finding that there were sufficient grounds for Pinochet to be prosecuted. The Supreme Court confirmed the decision by an even larger majority – fourteen to six – on August 8. The verdict was greeted as a landmark victory for justice both in Chile and internationally. Although Pinochet's poor health made it unlikely that his trial would be concluded, his shield of immunity, which a few years earlier had seemed impenetrable, was in tatters. Moreover, the Chilean judiciary, which had been widely questioned for its failure to defend human rights during Pinochet's rule, had shown independence in resisting pressure, thereby consolidating the rule of law.

Then, in October, Argentine judge Juan Jose Galeano requested the extradition of Pinochet and other former military officials to face criminal charges in the 1974 Buenos Aires car-bombing that killed former army commander-in-chief general Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofía Cuthbert.

There were also important advances in other human rights cases involving former military officers and members of the intelligence services under the military government. On July 19, the Seventh Chamber of the Santiago Appeals Court sentenced two former army majors and a cadet to life imprisonment for the murder in 1982 of a carpenter, Juan Alegría Mandioca. Alegría's body had been found with a suicide note in which he "confessed" to the murder of another victim of extrajudicial execution, trade union leader Tucapel Jiménez. Approximately twenty former police and army agents were on trial for Jiménez's murder, one of the most notorious cases of the 1980s.

The dramatic developments in the courts, and in particular Pinochet's loss of immunity, led to some tense moments between President Lagos's government and the armed forces and their civilian supporters. President Lagos made it clear at every opportunity that his government would not intervene in court decisions, and that whatever political agreements were reached on the human rights legacy, justice must proceed regardless. He headed off military pressure in the days leading up to the Supreme Court verdict and replied to military protest afterward by firmly asserting his constitutional authority.

Pinochet returned to a country already accustomed to his absence. He had scarcely been mentioned by either candidate during the election campaign. The business-as-usual atmosphere changed, however, the moment the former dictator set foot on the tarmac at Santiago's airport. A contingent of top military brass, former ministers of his government, and their families was awaiting his arrival. Pinochet's unassisted walk to greet his supporters and his raised stick salute shocked many who were expecting to see the man whom the United Kingdom had released on humanitarian grounds carried from the plane on a stretcher. The army ferried him by helicopter to the roof of the Military Hospital, pointedly flying over the presidential palace, and escorting him from the aircraft behind a wall of heavily armed soldiers. In a public statement, President Frei said he had kept his promise to bring Pinochet home before the end of his mandate. But, he pointed out, "All our efforts to get Senator Pinochet home have had a sole objective: that it should be Chilean courts not those of another country that apply the law."

Congress approved a constitutional reform giving parliamentary immunity to former presidents that have served a full term, thus encouraging Pinochet to resign from the Senate without forfeiting his protection from prosecution. Human Rights Watch, which shared the concern of Chilean human rights lawyers that the reform could give Pinochet additional legal immunity as well as establish a worrying regional precedent, wrote to President Lagos urging him to veto the measure. The reform became law in April, but Pinochet had not resigned his Senate position at this writing.

Although there were more than seventy criminal suits open against him, the desafuero proceedings concerned one case in particular, the so-called Caravan of Death. One month after the military coup that brought Pinochet to power in 1973, a helicopter-borne army unit under the command of one of the coup-makers, Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark, had visited the towns of Cauquenes in the south, and La Serena, Copiapó, Antofagasta, and Calama in the north. They secretly executed seventy-two political prisoners removed from local prisons. General Arellano had acted as Pinochet's personal emissary, with written orders "to streamline the administration of justice for political prisoners."

In July 1999, the Supreme Court had unanimously confirmed the indictment of General Arellano and four other senior retired army officers for kidnapping nineteen of the victims, whose bodies had never been located. Arellano and the others were accused of aggravated kidnapping, a charge that allowed the prosecution to surmount an amnesty law decreed by the military government in 1978. Since the fact of death could not be established, the court held, it was impossible to know that the nineteen had been killed within the five-year period covered by the amnesty law, and the amnesty was therefore found to be inapplicable.

At the oral hearings in the Santiago Appeals Court, held during the last week of April 2000, Pinochet's counsel, Ricardo Rivadaneira, argued that Pinochet's health was too poor for him to instruct his defense, and that the proceedings violated his right to due process. However, on May 3 the court rejected ordering medical tests before ruling on Pinochet's immunity. While the court studied the dossier, the armed forces stretched their constitutional role to the limit in proclaiming their support for the former ruler. On several occasions, however, President Lagos firmly reminded them of their constitutional obligation to remain neutral. After the four commanders-in-chief met on May 15 for a widely publicized lunch in an elegant Santiago restaurant, Lagos stated pointedly that "it is not necessary to show to anyone the unity of the armed forces, because the armed forces are united behind the president of Chile."

The Supreme Court verdict confirming the desafuero not only held that Pinochet could be prosecuted on the kidnapping charge. It argued that, even if the crimes were eventually found to be homicides, he could still be stripped of his immunity, since it was up to the trial judge to establish whether or not the amnesty or a statute of limitations was applicable. The judges referred to the vertical chain-of-command in the armed forces as a prima facie indication of Pinochet's responsibility, quoting the general's own aphorism, "The most useless person in life is he who knows neither how to give orders nor to obey." The court also referred to a declaration by one of the caravan of death officers, Col. (Rtd.) Sergio Arredondo, who indicated that he had known the true, lethal purpose of the mission before it began.

The Council for the Defense of the State (Consejo de Defensa del Estado, CDE), an autonomous body that represents the interests of the state in criminal proceedings, announced on March 7 that it had decided unanimously to join the proceedings as a party against Pinochet. The previous June, the CDE had turned down a government request to make itself a party.

During the year, the armed forces participated in talks, known as the Roundtable Dialogue (Mesa de Diálogo), with human rights attorneys and representatives of churches and civil society, which had been convened under the government of President Eduardo Frei. Although the discussions were almost abandoned more than once due to deep disagreements between the parties, the participants signed an accord on June 13. Each branch of the armed forces, including the uniformed police, the Carabineros, agreed to provide the fullest information possible on the whereabouts or fate of the "disappeared" at the end of six months. They also acknowledged "the responsibility of agents of organizations of the State" for grave human rights violations during the military regime, the first such admission since Pinochet relinquished power to an elected government a decade ago. On June 21, Congress, acting by an overwhelming majority, passed legislation enacting the agreement.

At this writing, Congress was expected to pass shortly a law to regulate the press, which it had been debating since 1993. The new law would strengthen freedom of expression guarantees in several important respects. Courts would no longer have powers to ban reporting of sensitive criminal cases, and would have to respect the confidentiality of journalists' sources. Military tribunals would no longer exercise jurisdiction over journalists charged with sedition or espionage under military laws. The bill would also remove the crime of contempt of authority from the State Security Law. Article 6(b) of that law punished those who insulted the president, cabinet ministers, senior judges, commanders-in-chief of the armed forces, or members of congress. At least thirty people had been charged and several convicted under this law since 1990, many for criticizing Pinochet or members of the Supreme Court he had appointed.

In December 1999, a new statute governing public administration and local government entered force, establishing for the first time that official documents were public, and providing a legal mechanism for redress if officials arbitrarily denied access to such public documents. Legislation to amend the constitution in order to end film and video censorship, and to restructure and revise the powers of the board of film censors, was also under parliamentary debate, but had not been approved at this writing. While President Lagos inherited these freedom of expression reforms from his predecessor, he had promised during the elections to give them high priority.

The conviction in February of journalist José Ale Aravena, court reporter for La Tercera, was a reminder of the authoritarian mentality of many of Chile's senior judges, and the meager protection they have given to freedom of expression through a decade of democratic rule. On February 15, the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court sentenced Ale to a 541-day suspended prison term for "insulting" former Chief Justice Servando Jordán in an article summarizing the judge's controversial career. Ale, who had referred in his article to comments that Jordán had been a member of a privileged clique in the judiciary, had been acquitted repeatedly by lower courts. The judge who drafted the sentence insulted and threatened the journalist at a public gathering two weeks before the verdict, calling him a "professional slanderer," thereby removing any semblance of impartiality from the verdict. President Lagos granted Ale a presidential pardon. The law regulating "insult" that led to his conviction was due to be removed from the statute books as part of the new press law.

Paula Afani Saud, also of La Tercera, was facing charges of breaching the secrecy of a criminal investigation under the Law on Abuses of Publicity and a similar charge under the Law against Illegal Drug-Trafficking brought by the CDE in April. In June 1998, Afani had written a series of articles in La Tercera and La Hora about a high-profile investigation being conducted by the CDE into a drug-trafficking and money-laundering conspiracy, which became known as "Operation Ocean." The articles included the testimony of former members of the criminal group who were interviewed in prison in the United States by Chilean police officials. Afani had refused to identify to the police her sources of information, and was consequently held solely responsible by the CDE for the leaked information, an offense that carried a five-year prison sentence under the drug-trafficking law. The case established a troubling precedent at a time when the government had committed itself to protecting the confidentiality of journalists' sources and the public's right of access to information in the public interest.

Defending Human Rights

The Supreme Court's decision stripping General Pinochet of his parliamentary immunity was a triumph for Chile's human rights movement, and especially for the victims of his rule who had campaigned for justice for twenty-five years. Often their work incurred personal risk. On December 15, 1999, Viviana Díaz Caro and Mireya García, president and secretary general, respectively, of the Association of Relatives of the "Disappeared" (Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos, AFDD) received a Christmas card with the inscription, "Lets hope that Father Christmas will give us the opportunity to meet face to face in the year 2000, so that we can blow your brains out. Enjoy your last Christmas. . . you will not be around for the next. Greetings to your family. . . . Merry Christmas to all. FNL-Villa Grimaldi Editions."

Villa Grimaldi is the name of a former torture center in Santiago, now converted into a "park for peace." A group calling itself the Nationalist Front for Fatherland and Freedom (Frente Nacionalista Patria y Libertad, FNL), believed to be made up of pro-Pinochet fanatics and former military personnel, had menaced other individuals and groups during the year. After Pinochet's return to Chile, however, no further threats were reported.

A group of young people known as the Funa, whose activities are dedicated to unmasking former torturers, was the object of a criminal complaint lodged in August by an opposition member of the Chamber of Deputies, who accused them of "criminal association." The group engaged in nonviolent vigils, accompanied by drums, whistles, and chanting, outside the homes or offices of individuals known from legal records to have participated in torture and killings. The evening newspaper La Segunda referred to them as "an ultra-left group that decided to exchange their molotov cocktails for a more sophisticated weapon: character assassination."

The Role of the International Community

United States

Following Pinochet's arrest in London, the White House ordered U.S. national security agencies to release confidential documents that shed light on human rights violations in Chile from 1968-1990. By mid-2000, some 7,500 documents had been released, but they did not include crucial Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents believed to reveal the details of U.S. covert action in Chile prior to and following the election of the Allende government that was overthrown by the military coup of 1973, and information on U.S. support for the military junta. Following pressure from freedom of information groups, the CIA carried out a search of its archives and gave written assurances to the National Security Council that its documents would be declassified in time to be released in September 2000. However, CIA Director George Tenet went back on this commitment in August, by deciding not to release hundreds of documents on grounds that they could compromise intelligence sources and operational methods. Of particular concern was the fact that the missing documents might contain information crucial to Pinochet's trial in Chile, such as the functioning of his secret police, the DINA, and the CIA's liaison with it.

During a visit to Santiago in August, however, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pledged to push for the "fullest possible declassification." A breakthrough in understanding the role of the CIA in Chile came the following month, in response to a 1999 amendment to the fiscal 2000 Intelligence Authorization Act authored by member of the House of Representatives Maurice Hinchey. It required the agency to submit a report to Congress on its relations with Pinochet's military government, among other aspects of CIA involvement in Chile. In the report, the CIA revealed that it had maintained a liaison with Manuel Contreras, the DINA's infamous director, from 1974 to 1977. The relationship lasted throughout the period in which human rights were grossly and systematically abused in Chile, and it ended a year after the car-bomb murder in Washington, D.C. of former Allende foreign minister Orlando Letelier, and his colleague Ronni Moffitt, for which Contreras had been indicted in the United States and convicted in Chile. At this writing, the CIA and other agencies were preparing for a release of 16,000 declassified documents related to the U.S. role in Chile.

The U.S. continued to investigate Pinochet's role in the Letelier-Moffitt assassination. On March 22, U.S. law enforcement officials arrived in Santiago to question witnesses, after the Chilean Supreme Court agreed to subpoena forty-two people at the request of the U.S. government. Without the presence of the U.S. investigators, a Chilean judge asked the witnesses, including Contreras, questions provided by the U.S. authorities. The Chilean Supreme Court has requested the extradition of one of the DINA agents convicted in the U.S. for the Letelier crime, Armando Fernández Larios, to answer charges in the caravan of death case.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.