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Victims of Forced Disappearance Eligible to Vote in Chile

SANTIAGO, May 25 2012 (IPS) - The families of victims of Chile’s 1973-1990 dictatorship were shocked to find out that the names of more than 1,000 victims of forced disappearance have appeared on the on-line voter rolls generated by a new automatic registration system.

Photos of victims of forced disappearance outside Villa Grimaldi, a former detention and torture centre that is now a "peace park". Credit:Marysol*/CC BY-SA 2.0

Erika Hennings, the wife of Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) leader Alfonso Chanfreau, found out that her husband was registered to vote under the new system that went into effect this year, eliminating the need to register in person.

But Chanfreau has been missing since 1974, when he was detained by DINA, the dictatorship’s secret police, shortly after the coup that overthrew democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

Relatives of the victims of the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet said the situation had caused them “pain and distress.”

The president of the Group of Families of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD), Lorena Pizarro, told IPS that the incident “renders invisible” the forced disappearance of their loved ones.

“Today we’re not interested in talking about Servel (the Electoral Service) or the Electoral Registry. Under the new law, they had to include in the voter rolls all adults who are classified as alive,” Pizarro said.

“They could have talked to us, but they wouldn’t have been able to resolve the underlying issue anyway, because legally these Chileans are citizens who, in theory, are alive, when the truth is that they are detained-disappeared,” she said.

The activist said the missing family members “can’t be declared dead because that is not the real situation: the form of extermination was, purposely, to make them disappear.”

“The deeper issue is not fixed by finding a way to remove them from the list; the question is how do we face up to the fact, once and for all, that our country has victims of forced disappearance and that it must thus create a different category for the men and women who were victims of the genocide, the (state) terrorism,” she said.

The dictatorship detained and “disappeared” 3,216 people, while another 38,254 political prisoners suffered torture, according to official reports.

Servel director Juan Ignacio García said it was impossible for the electoral body to remove the names from the lists because for all legal purposes, those individuals are still alive.

“We could not take sides in these circumstances,” he said. “If we would have eliminated the names of the detained-disappeared from the lists, even if we had wanted to do so, what would it have meant? That we would have been recognising terminology in the legal situation that affects them, in circumstances in which it would have been absolutely inappropriate for the Civil Registry or Servel to act. I don’t see how this situation can be resolved,” he added.

Since Law 20.568, which regulates the automatic voter registration, modifies Servel and modernises the voting system, went into force in January, it has automatically registered 4.5 million voters, 80 percent of whom are below the age of 35.

According to the government of Sebastián Piñera, the law raised the number of potential voters by 55 percent, compared to the last elections, and by 332 percent in the case of Chileans under 29

The first impact of the reform will be seen in the October municipal elections, since the number of registered voters will have increased from eight to 12.5 million, in this country of 17.5 million people.

The only way to remove someone from the voter rolls is by presenting a legal verdict that disqualifies them from exercising their political rights, or by submitting a death certificate.

But in the case of victims of forced disappearance, any change in their legal status could have consequences in ongoing lawsuits. Supreme Court spokesman Jorge Rodríguez noted that they are currently classified as victims of “permanent kidnapping.”

“There would be little impact in cases in which rulings have already been handed down, because they are closed, and the principle of res judicata (that you can’t be tried for the same crime twice) applies. But in pending cases, the charges could be changed to kidnapping with murder, which of course would bring a heavier sentence,” he explained.

The controversy has reached Congress, where representatives of the opposition Socialist Party introduced a fast-track bill to urgently remove the names of the “disappeared” from the voter lists.

The situation “is dramatic; the pain of the families must be enormous,” socialist Senator Isabel Allende, the daughter of the president who died in the government palace when it was bombed during the coup, told IPS.

“I suppose there were no bad intentions, it was a mistake, but frankly it has a cost and is very painful for the families. It is incomprehensible that they didn’t realise that they couldn’t include the names of the detained-disappeared on the Electoral Register. For the families, it was almost a mockery.”

Senate president Camilo Escalona, who also belongs to the Socialist Party, said “this situation profoundly affects the families” and must be urgently resolved.

Senator Lily Pérez of the right-wing ruling National Renewal party said the government would support the bill. She added that “as early as tomorrow, (the detained-disappeared) could receive a summons to act as citizen election workers (who run the voting booths).”

Pizarro told IPS that agreements have already been reached to move forward in the search for truth and justice, “asking for fast-track treatment of a bill that interprets articles 93 and 103 of the penal code, in order to block the application of the statute of limitations, the amnesty, or a pardon” for human rights violators.

“We are going to work on a law that would give our family members the status of ‘absent victims of forced disappearance’,” she said. (END)

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