Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HUMAN RIGHTS-CHILE: Parliament Abolishes Death Penalty

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Apr 4 2001 (IPS) - The Chilean Chamber of Deputies approved a bill Tuesday that will abolish the death penalty as soon as it is signed into law by President Ricardo Lagos within the next few weeks.

The bill, which replaces capital punishment with “effective life in prison”, was passed by a vote of 63 to 37, with four abstentions, in the 120-seat lower house of Congress, located in the port of Valparaíso, 120 kms west of Santiago.

The 37 lawmakers who voted against the bill belonged to the right-wing opposition.

The Senate has already approved the bill, which means it will now go to a bicameral commission before being signed into law by Socialist President Lagos.

The vote by the Chamber of Deputies was described as a “historic” materialisation of a long-standing demand of human rights groups and the Catholic Church.

“This is a historic day. The president of the republic will sign, at the proper time, this law that once and for all will remove such an irrational and inhumane punishment from Chilean legislation,” said Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez.

The only aspect to be decided by the bicameral commission refers to the Supreme Court’s authority to decide whether or not a prisoner is to be released on parole after serving 40 years behind bars.

The commission must decide whether or not the highest court will be able to grant parole by a simple majority, or whether the vote of two-thirds of its members will be necessary.

Chile is one of the few countries in Latin America with the death penalty still on its books. But thanks to the new law, capital punishment will be removed from the civil code, and will only continue to exist in the military justice code, and only in cases involving charges of treason during war-time.

The death penalty will be definitively abolished, because Chile is a signatory to the San Jose pact on human rights, according to which once the punishment is eliminated from national laws, it cannot be revived.

The governments of the ruling centre-left Coalition for Democracy have been trying to eliminate capital punishment since the end of the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-90).

But the initiative continuously ran up against resistance from the right-wing opposition, which although a minority in both houses of Congress, has enough votes to block constitutional amendments.

Since the death penalty was adopted in Chile in the 19th century, it was applied, in accordance with legal rulings, on 58 occasions, without mentioning the roughly 1,000 executions of political prisoners under the Pinochet regime, some of which were ordered by military courts “in war-time.”

The organisations of the families of victims of the dictatorship have consistently opposed the death penalty.

In all of the cases in which intelligence and military personnel have been tried for grave human rights violations, such as the murder of three members of the Communist Party in 1982, the victims’ families have argued for life in prison for the accused.

The last execution on the order of a civilian court took place in 1981, under the Pinochet dictatorship.

Once democracy was restored, Christian Democratic presidents Patricio Aylwin and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle consistently commuted death sentences to life in prison, in accordance with their political and philosophical beliefs.

However, under the old legislation, prisoners serving life sentences were eligible for parole after 20 years in prison.

That aspect, which made the concept of life in prison a farce, was the main argument of the rightist opposition in its refusal to abolish the death penalty during the early years of the transition to democracy.

Christian Democratic Senator Juan Hamilton paved the way for a solution by proposing the creation of “effective life in prison,” which would entail a minimum of 40 years behind bars for those convicted of extremely serious criminal offences.

The Catholic Church lobbied for Hamilton’s motion to be approved by the Senate, where the right-wing members have greater power due to the existence of senators designated by the armed forces.

Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, the Catholic Church’s primate in Chile, appeared before the Chamber of Deputies’ Commission on the Constitution to argue in favour of the abolition of the death penalty, prior to the plenary vote in the lower house of Congress.

 
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