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RIGHTS-CHILE: Baby Steps, But Progress Nonetheless

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 5 2007 (IPS) - Human rights groups in Chile are celebrating legal rulings in favour of victims of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and announcements by President Michelle Bachelet in the same vein. But they are critical of the slow pace of justice and the amount that still needs to be done.

"We are seeing progress, not as much as we would like, but there have been some significant advances recently," Viviana Diaz, the vice president of the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD), told IPS.

She was referring to investigations of high-profile human rights cases like the ones known as Conferencia Street, Operation Albania and Caravan of Death.

On Aug. 29, the Supreme Court upheld the first life sentence handed down in a human rights case.

Retired general Hugo Salas Wenzel, former chief of the National Information Centre (CNI) which replaced the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) secret police agency, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the murder of 12 leftwing opponents of the dictatorship in 1987, in the case known as Operation Albania.

Two days later, an appeals court in the northern city of Antofagasta for the first time prosecuted a Catholic priest, Luis Jorquera Molina.

He is accused of covering up the murders of 28 opponents of Pinochet in October 1973 as part of the Caravan of Death, a killing spree carried out by the regime shortly after the 1973 coup d’etat that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende.

Since January, Judge Víctor Montiglio has prosecuted more than 64 former military officers implicated in the 1976 forced disappearance of the leaders of the Communist Party, who were seized when they were hiding out at a safe house on Conferencia Street in Santiago. One of them was Viviana’s father, Víctor Díaz.

The accused officers have not been released on bail during their trials, the AFDD activist pointed out. The investigation has also discovered a torture centre that operated from 1976 to 1978.

"That was where they murdered Reinalda Pereira, 26, a medical technician who was six months pregnant, after torturing her for 48 hours," Díaz said.

"The justice system is only doing its work, but too slowly and with delays. Some of these cases date back 25 or 30 years," the executive secretary of the Chilean branch of Amnesty International, Sergio Laurenti, told IPS.

Socialist President Bachelet has announced that the work of two independent commissions, the Rettig and Valech commissions of 1990 and 2003 respectively, is to be revived.

The commissions recorded the testimonies of victims of torture and relatives of those killed and forcibly disappeared during the Pinochet era, and awarded reparations.

The government introduced a last-minute amendment, to refound a similar commission, into a draft law to create an Institute of Human Rights. The draft law is on the point of being passed by Congress, despite the opposition of sectors of the rightwing opposition alliance.

If the amendment is accepted, the new commission will spend six months gathering testimony from survivors or relatives who, for whatever reason, did not appear before the Rettig and Valech commissions. The survivors will not, however, be eligible for material reparations. The commission will present a report one year later.

After 17 years of dictatorship, former President Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994) of the centre-left Coalition for Democracy that has governed Chile since 1990, created the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by lawyer Raúl Rettig.

The commission listed over 3,000 people murdered by the regime, of whom 1,183 were forcibly disappeared.

And in 2003, former President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) established the National Commission on Political Prisoners and Torture, presided over by Catholic Bishop Sergio Valech.

This commission gathered 37,000 testimonies and certified that 28,000 Chileans had been imprisoned and tortured for political reasons during the dictatorship, among them Bachelet herself and her mother, Ángela Jeria.

Díaz said "the reopening of a new period for registering cases of human rights violations was one of the proposals made by the AFDD to President Bachelet in 2006."

Laurenti welcomed the decision to reopen the opportunity to offer evidence, "which should never have been closed," but he criticised the anonymity afforded to the alleged perpetrators. "Progress is being made on truth and reparations, but not on justice," he told IPS.

Díaz welcomed the fulfilment of another of AFDD’s goals: the opening of a modern DNA-matching centre which will take samples of genetic material from relatives of murder victims and the disappeared, in order to assist in the identification of remains. The centre is part of the forensic medicine service.

The centre will begin its work with relatives of victims exhumed in 1991 from a common grave in the Santiago General Cemetery. The remains were identified between 1993 and 1995 and handed over to relatives, but in April 2006 the forensic medicine service admitted that mistakes had been made in the identification of a large number of the bodies.

Meanwhile, the amnesty law decreed by Pinochet in 1978, which forbids prosecution for human rights crimes committed between the coup d’état on Sept. 11, 1973 and Mar. 10, 1978, has yet to be rescinded.

In September 2006 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Chile guilty of failing to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the death of Luis Alfredo Almonacid, a teacher and Communist Party activist killed in 1973, because of the application of the amnesty law.

The Inter-American Court ordered the state to reopen the case and to guarantee that the amnesty law would not be invoked in any other cases of crimes against humanity.

"The case (before the Inter-American Court) was a serious blow to Chile after 16 years of transition to democracy, because of the state’s ineffectiveness in investigating, punishing and making reparations for human rights violations," says a report by the Diego Portales University (UDP)’s Human Rights Centre, released on Aug. 30.

"After the Court’s verdict, the Supreme Court as well as lower courts have accepted a uniform legal interpretation, stipulating that summary execution and forced disappearance are crimes against humanity, and therefore, under the rule of international law, neither the amnesty law nor statutes of limitation can apply to them," the UDP report states.

In spite of this, human rights organisations are demanding that the amnesty law be revoked, to prevent the risk of its being used in future. Bachelet has promised to make the amnesty law inapplicable, but how this is to be achieved is still unclear.

There are differences within the governing coalition over the best way to repeal the amnesty law.

"This lack of determination and clarity is worrying, and nearly a year after the Court verdict, the Chilean state is falling behind on its international obligations," says the UDP report.

Bachelet’s proactive stance on human rights is interpreted by some as part of a strategy to secure a seat for Chile on the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2008.

However, Laurenti said that "Chile has still not ratified important international instruments, like the International Criminal Court and the ILO (International Labour Organisation) Convention 169 on indigenous peoples."

All four Coalition for Democracy governments, in turn, have promised these ratifications, as well as the repeal of the amnesty law, but have failed to deliver.

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