Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Another Chance for Reparations for Pinochet Victims

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Feb 11 2010 (IPS) - Over the next six months, a new commission will receive testimony from victims of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late General Augusto Pinochet, who have not qualified for reparations since Chile’s return to democracy.

A bill signed into law in December by President Michelle Bachelet that created the National Institute for Human Rights also established an advisory commission to certify victims of forced disappearance, politically-motivated murder or imprisonment and torture under the dictatorship.

The commission, which will be active for 12 months, will be an extension of the work of two previous commissions created after this South American country’s return to democracy.

The previous bodies were the 1991 National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, known as the “Rettig Commission” because it was chaired by the late lawyer Raúl Rettig, and the 2004 National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, called the “Valech Commission” after its chair Sergio Valech, a retired bishop of Santiago.

The Rettig Commission documented 3,197 cases of people who were killed or forcibly disappeared, while the Valech Commission, created by former socialist president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) certified 28,459 political prisoners and torture victims.

As soon as the regulatory decree is published in the official gazette – sometime before Feb. 15 – the six-month period will begin for victims or their relatives to present their documents at the new commission’s Santiago office, regional government offices, or Chilean consulates abroad.

In the first week of March, Bachelet is expected to preside at the installation ceremony for the new commission, which will be comprised of the same eight members who sat on the Valech Commission.

The commission’s secretariat, made up of about 60 lawyers, psychologists, social workers and other professionals, will collect testimony for the first six months. Then the eight commissioners will work on the accreditation of the claims in each individual case during the following six months.

Victims who qualify will be eligible for monetary, medical, educational and housing benefits provided as reparations.

A web site ( has been set up to get the word out about the commission, and a toll-free telephone number (800 411 400) was created for making appointments.

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, inaugurated Jan. 11 by Bachelet, will be an important source of documentary evidence for the commission, as it maintains records of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship.

It is likely that about 7,000 cases that could not be certified five years ago by the Valech Commission will now be presented again, the executive secretary of the new commission, Claudio Herrera, told IPS.

Lawyers estimate that between 200 and 300 new cases of killings and forced disappearance will be registered, said Herrera, who stressed that no upper limit has been fixed for the number of people to be included on the commission’s lists, in spite of rumours to that effect.

“Everyone who meets the criteria will be certified,” he said.

Herrera said it was highly unlikely that the reparations process would be upset by the Mar. 11 swearing-in of rightwing president-elect Sebastián Piñera, who is backed by two parties that include among their members individuals who directly participated in the Pinochet regime.

“There should be no problems” with the certification of victims and their receipt of compensation when Piñera takes office, because “the institutions are already in place and carrying out their work,” he said.

Organisations representing victims’ families, and human rights lawyers, have expressed concern over what might happen to the ongoing trials of former military personnel and civilians accused of committing murder, forced disappearance and torture during the military regime.

Senate president Jovino Novoa, of the ultra-conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party, which supports Piñera, announced that he is in favour of invoking the 1978 amnesty law issued by Pinochet, which blocked the prosecution of those implicated in certain crimes committed between the Sept. 11, 1973 coup d’état and Mar. 10, 1978.

In practice judges have begun to disregard the amnesty law, but it has never been repealed, in spite of a ruling to that effect by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

During his electoral campaign Piñera denied leaked reports that he had promised, at a private meeting with about a hundred retired members of the military and security forces, to speed up the “interminable” trials for human rights violations and apply the statute of limitations.

Government spokeswoman Carolina Tohá rejoined that “there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity.”

The future of the Interior Ministry’s Human Rights Programme, which provides free legal representation in the courts for relatives of victims of the dictatorship, is also uncertain.

Piñera’s supporters have said the programme will be strengthened. A report released Sunday by Supreme Court judge Sergio Muñoz, the national coordinator for cases of human rights violations during the dictatorship, said that 1,135 cases detailed in the 1991 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report have not yet been investigated by the justice system.

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