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SANTIAGO, Sep 13 2010 (IPS) - Eleven members of the Chilean armed forces and three Uruguayan military officers were found guilty of the kidnap-murder of Chilean biochemist Eugenio Berríos, an intelligence agent of the 1973-1990 regime of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Berríos was secretly taken to Uruguay in 1991, hidden or kidnapped for more than a year, and then killed. The 14 military men were sentenced Friday on charges of illicit association, kidnapping and homicide. The three retired Uruguayan officers have appealed the verdict.
“This is without a doubt a historic ruling, because in one way or another it closes a chapter in Chile’s transition to democracy,” journalist Jorge Molina Sanhueza, author of the 2002 book “Crimen Imperfecto. Historia del químico DINA Eugenio Berríos y la muerte de Eduardo Frei Montalva” (Imperfect Crime: The Story of DINA Chemist Eugenio Berríos and the Death of Eduardo Frei Montalva), told IPS.
“All the different aspects of an era come together somehow in the Berríos case,” he said. “It’s as if we had wanted to speak of a case par excellence of all of the military dictatorship’s power in the shadows.”
“It entails all aspects: identity theft, clandestine payments, homicide, cover-ups, protection networks,” he added.
Berríos was involved in research on lethal biochemical weapons like sarin nerve gas in the dictatorship’s secret police, the DINA.
Operation Condor was a coordinated plan among the military governments that ruled Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at tracking down, capturing, torturing and eliminating left-wing opponents, with the tacit approval of the United States.
The unique thing about the murder of Berríos was that it was committed after both Uruguay and Chile had returned to democracy, and while Pinochet — who died in 2006 — was still army chief.
Madrid’s ruling states that the 14 defendants “strayed from their duties, forming an organisation parallel to the regular structure.”
With access to funds, the ruling says, the Chilean defendants established “ties with foreign military personnel, who they invited to join the criminal organisation, and who in some cases were directly involved and in others collaborated in carrying out crimes.”
The stiffest penalty, 10 years, went to retired Chilean army Maj. Arturo Silva, who was found guilty of kidnapping and homicide. He was also sentenced to three years for illicit association, to be served consecutively.
The other Chilean defendants, who included retired officers of different ranks as well as noncommissioned officers, received sentences ranging from probation to five years in prison.
The three retired Uruguayan officers, who were extradited to Chile in 2006, received sentences ranging from three to five years.
Five other defendants were acquitted by Judge Madrid, who was assigned police protection in July 2009 after receiving spooky phone calls and noticing strangers watching his home.
In 1991, a year after Chile returned to democracy, Berríos was snuck out of Chile to Argentina and eventually Uruguay, where he was guarded by members of the Uruguayan and Chilean armed forces.
The aim of the military intelligence operation was to keep Berríos from testifying in the trial for the assassination of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier, who was killed by a car bomb in 1976 in Washington, D.C. Letelier was foreign minister for leftwing president Salvador Allende (1970-1973), who Pinochet overthrew in the coup.
The last time Berríos was seen alive was on Nov. 15, 1992, when he appeared, dishevelled and agitated, in the police station of Parque del Plata, a small resort town near the capital of Uruguay, to report that he had been kidnapped.
But he was turned over to the men he denounced as his kidnappers, two of the Uruguayan officers who were sentenced on Friday.
Berríos’s body was found in January 1995, with two bullet holes to the head. He had been buried on a beach in El Pinar, the resort town next to Parque del Plata. The forensic experts determined that the murder had been committed in late 1992 or the first few months of 1993.
The biochemist’s murder is also linked to the death of former Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970). He died in early 1982 despite doctors’ efforts to fight an unidentified bacteria that caused a mysterious generalised infection after routine surgery.
Judge Madrid is also investigating the case involving Frei Montalva’s death.
The ruling in the Berríos case will have an impact on the Frei Montalva case “if the courts (the appeal court and the Supreme Court) uphold Judge (Madrid’s) verdict,” said Molina Sanhueza, who works today for El Mostrador, an on-line publication.
“Thanks to Berríos, Judge Madrid discovered (the army’s) bacteriological warfare laboratory, which was preparing the poisons that are presumed to have been used against Frei; Frei’s autopsy report was found; and the case of the ‘miristas’ (members of the left-wing Revolutionary Left Movement – MIR), who were poisoned in prison in 1981, came to light.”
“It’s positive that the defendants were convicted, since it is the only way to make reparations for the damages caused not only to the family, who I represent, but also to Chilean society as a whole,” the Berríos family’s lawyer, Thomas Ehrenfeld, told the Cooperativa radio station.
“Despite the time that has gone by, we welcome the verdict because it indicates that the Chilean justice system is not applying the statute of limitations in cases of human rights violations,” Leonardo Aravena, a lawyer with the Chilean chapter of rights watchdog Amnesty International, commented to IPS.
The defendants were also ordered to pay millions of dollars in reparations to the plaintiffs.
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