- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

SANTIAGO, Chile, Feb. 25 (UPI) — A Chilean judge decided Tuesday to prosecute the former head of intelligence in the Pinochet regime over the 1974 assassination of former commander in chief Gen. Carlos Prats.

Judge Alejandro Solis included in his indictment of Gen. Manuel Contreras four senior members of the Pinochet secret police, which under Contreras' tenure was allegedly responsible for the assassination and disappearance of numerous political dissidents.

The charges involve homicide, and Solis ordered the five arrested.

This is the first time that the controversial Prats case was to be investigated in Chile after nearly three decades. The decision was hailed by the head lawyer of the Prats family, Hernan Quezada.

"This is a historic resolution," Quezada said, adding that he expected the probe to confirm Contreras' guilt as well as that of other "DINA members which I hope will be eventually identified by the Chilean justice."

DINA is the acronym for the Spanish-language initials of the National Intelligence Directorate, the secret police.

Prats was military commander in chief and defense minister under the socialist government of President Salvador Allende, which was ousted by a military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet on Sept. 11, 1973.

The new regime resented Prats' influence in the military, fearing the former chief could stage a counter-punch against Pinochet. Prats was forced to issue a televised appeal for leftist militants to end resistance to the new regime, but was nonetheless exiled shortly thereafter to Argentina, along with his wife, Sofia Cuthbert.

Both Prats and Cuthbert were killed in September 1974 by a bomb planted in his car, allegedly by DINA agents operating in Buenos Aires. Contreras and his colleagues have blamed U.S. intelligence agents for the murder.

The probe into the Prats assassination was launched nearly a decade ago by Argentine judge Maria Servini de Cubria, who in 2002 requested the extradition of Contreras as well as former DINA military members Pedro Espinoza, the agency's second in command; Raul Iturriaga Neumann; Jose Zara Holger; and the agency's civil liaison Jorge Iturriaga Neumann.

Although the Argentine extradition request was denied by Chile's Supreme Court, it nonetheless ordered in December 2002 the opening of an investigation into the Prats case. Solis was appointed to undertake the probe in early January, eventually deciding on the prosecution of the five DINA officials.

The swiftness of Solis' decision owes to Servini's previous investigation and her questioning of the confessed author of the crime, American expatriate Michael Townley.

A former DINA hit man, Townley reportedly revealed to Servini all the details behind the operation to kill Prats, including previous contacts with Contreras and Espinoza.

According to accounts, Townley had previously confessed to the September 1994 car bomb assassination of Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his secretary, U.S. citizen Ronni Moffitt.

The former DINA agent was eventually extradited to the United States in 1978, where he claimed he was following direct orders from Contreras. After serving a five-year sentence, Townley plea-bargained for protection from prosecution for several other crimes, including the Prats assassination.

Townley's confessions eventually landed Contreras and his right-hand man Espinoza in jail in 1993 over their responsibility for the Letelier assassination.

Solis' decision was immediately challenged by Contreras' defense team, which claims that Townley was a member of the CIA and that the operation was carried out by the U.S. intelligence organization.

Contreras' attorney, Juan Carlos Manns, stated that "there are other organizations that have participated in this assassination and Mr. Contreras has nothing to do with it." Manns had already stated in recent days that he would eventually forward Solis a number of "new documents" and reports proving the CIA's responsibility in the operation.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos also made a brief allusion to the decision to prosecute the DINA officers, stating that he had "met General Prats and I can say that I and my family consider ourselves friends of his family. They distinguished us with their affection and I obviously expect that such an horrendous crime is solved."

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