Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Alleged Human Rights Abusers on Army Payroll

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 2 2009 (IPS) - Thirteen retired military officers facing prosecution for human rights crimes and corruption as well as one who has been convicted are still on the Chilean army’s payroll.

“We agree that everyone has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty,” but in this case, the circumstances in which these officers left the army should be investigated, Virginie Houdmont, with rights watchdog Amnesty International, told IPS.

Meanwhile, it was reported Tuesday that arrest warrants were issued for more than 120 former agents of the 1973-1990 dictatorship’s notorious DINA secret police.

The warrants are in connection with three major human rights cases: Operation Colombo, a disinformation ploy mounted by DINA in 1974 to cover up the forced disappearance of 119 leftists, making it look like they had been killed in internal purges by left-wing groups; Operation Condor, a coordinated plan among the military governments that ruled numerous South American countries in the 1970s and 1980s aimed at eliminating left-wing opponents; and the “Calle Conferencia” case, which takes its name from the place where the leaders of the Communist Party were killed in 1976.

Never before in Chile have warrants been issued for the arrest of so many former members of the security forces. The press also reported that more than half of the former DINA agents had never been prosecuted or arrested.

Two days before the news of the arrest warrants came out, the state-owned newspaper La Nación reported Sunday that former members of the security forces who formed part of DINA during the dictatorship of late Gen. Augusto Pinochet had been hired by the army in administrative positions.

La Nación carefully studied the payrolls that were published on the army’s web site in compliance with a new public information access law in effect since Apr. 20.

The newspaper reported that the former DINA agents hired by the army were retired colonels Hugo Acevedo, Guido Díaz Paci, Sergio Castillo and Sergio Cea, as well as agents Alfredo Iturriaga and Pablo Rodríguez Márquez.

They are either facing prosecution or have been accused by their alleged victims.

Rodríguez Márquez, for example, was indicted on charges of kidnapping, illicit criminal association and obstruction of justice in the early 1990s kidnapping and murder in Uruguay of chemist Eugenio Berríos, who had worked for DINA.

The retired officers, who worked for DINA (the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional) and the agency that replaced it when it was dissolved in 1977 – the CNI (Central Nacional de Inteligencia) – earn between 725 and 2,170 dollars a month for their work with the army.

The news, reported on Aug. 30, the National Day of the Detained-Disappeared, drew an immediate outcry from organisations of relatives of victims of the dictatorship. (Some 3,000 people were killed and disappeared under the de facto regime and 35,000 were tortured.)

Lorena Pizarro, president of the Group of Families of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD), said it was a “national disgrace and an affront to the Chilean people” that the army was using taxpayers’ money to finance former agents who committed crimes during the dictatorship.

The initial reaction by the centre-left government of Michelle Bachelet was to point out that the retired officers were facing prosecution but had not yet been convicted, which meant they enjoyed the “presumption of innocence.”

“The principle of the presumption of innocence…doesn’t just apply when it suits me – in other words, when it’s ‘my people’ there is a presumption of innocence but when it’s people on the other side, no,” Defence Minister Francisco Vidal said Monday.

On Tuesday, Vidal confirmed that the army had hired not just six but 13 former DINA agents facing prosecution, as well as one who had been found guilty.

Eight of the 13 are accused of crimes against humanity and the other five are facing charges like illicit enrichment in relation to cases such as the corruption case against Pinochet and his inner circle.

Vidal also reported that retired colonel Pedro Teyssedre, who was found guilty for the 1975 kidnapping of labourer Juan Llanca, had been fired from the administrative post he held in an army health centre in the northern city of Iquique.

“Full information on the government’s decision regarding this matter will be forthcoming,” said the defence minister, who also asked the police for full reports.

Government spokeswoman Carolina Tohá later stated that “we are waiting for complete information from the different branches of the armed forces in order to have a realistic and informed understanding of this situation.”

She said, nevertheless, that “in those cases in which there are compromising situations and compelling evidence (of human rights abuses), the government believes it best for the individuals to be removed from the institutions.”

Tohá added that the government would begin to study “how this will be done, and in which cases.”

The hiring of officers facing human rights charges already made the headlines in 2002, when Bachelet was defence minister. At the time, she recommended that their ties with the army be severed.

The leaders of the parties making up the governing coalition – the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia – which has ruled Chile since the return to democracy in 1990, criticised the government’s initial reaction.

“Presumption of innocence for DINA agents defies credulity,” said the president of the Socialist Party, Camilo Escalona.

The leader of the Radical Social Democracy Party (PRSD), José Antonio Gómez, asked “Would they stake their life on these people?”

Several congresspersons announced that they would demand the creation of a commission to investigate the issue.

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