- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

SANTIAGO, Chile — When a military coup brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile 30 years ago, Carmen Hertz was the mother of an 11-month-old son and married three years.

Her husband, then 30-year-old Carlos Berger, a former official in the deposed socialist government of the late elected President Salvador Allende, was arrested while working as director of the Radio El Loa station in northern Chile.

That day, Sept. 11, 1973, paranoia swept the country. Mr. Berger and tens of thousands of others Chileans were dragged from their homes and offices and detained in football stadiums, schools, gymnasiums and elsewhere merely for suspected leftist sympathies.

A month later, supposedly under orders from Gen. Pinochet, Mr. Berger and 25 fellow prisoners were dragged into the desert where they were tortured and killed with “corvos” — razor-sharp, curved knives.

The incident was just one part of a larger bloodletting, later called “the Caravan of Death,” in which 75 political dissidents were rounded up, tortured and killed in a few days by a special military unit moving quickly by helicopter throughout northern Chile.

Thirty years later, Mrs. Hertz and other relatives of human rights victims are still seeking justice for these and other reported crimes carried out during Gen. Pinochet’s 1973-90 military dictatorship.

In August, Chile’s neighbor Argentina moved forward with scrapping an amnesty law that had prevented prosecution of human rights crimes committed during that country’s “dirty war,” but a similar amnesty decreed when Gen. Pinochet was dictator remains in effect.

“Chile’s government does very little for the families of human rights victims,” said Mrs. Hertz, who recently resigned from a job with Chile’s U.N. mission in Geneva.

“In the 13 years since democracy has been restored, none of the governments have even spoken of attempting to annul the amnesty law as Argentina has now done. They have not even put the issue into the public debate,” she said.

About a third of the 3,200 persons said to have died at the hands of Gen. Pinochet’s forces “disappeared” — their bodies thrown into the sea, dropped into volcanoes, buried in mass graves or dynamited. An estimated 150,000 people were imprisoned for political reasons. Tens of thousands were tortured, and about 200,000 Chileans went into exile.

Mrs. Hertz, now a human rights lawyer, filed the lawsuit for the Caravan of Death case that briefly led to Gen. Pinochet being placed under house arrest in 2000. Chile’s courts stripped the ex-dictator of political protection and considered bringing him to trial as the “intellectual author” of those killings. But the case was put on indefinite hold when Gen. Pinochet’s lawyers won a reprieve by having the former strongman, now 87, declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

Nearly five years after Gen. Pinochet was detained in London for 503 days on a Spanish warrant charging him with murder, kidnapping and torture, he remains legally untouchable. Meanwhile, other human rights cases are moving only slowly through Chilean courts, owing in large part to a continuing “wall of silence” among ex-Pinochet military and police officers.

But since Gen. Pinochet’s arrest in London, there has been substantial progress toward discovering truths and obtaining justice for the families of his victims.

The erosion of Gen. Pinochet’s grip on Chilean society has also led to a cultural opening. Formerly forbidden film documentaries of the Allende era are now shown regularly on Chilean television, and in 2001 a statue of Dr. Allende, a physician before he entered politics, was erected in front of the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago.

In July 1999, Chilean courts reinterpreted the amnesty law, allowing numerous judicial investigations to begin in cases involving disappeared people whose bodies were not recovered. The courts contended that under Chilean and international law, such disappearances are tantamount to kidnappings and are considered continuous violations until the bodies are found.

The reinterpretation of the amnesty has allowed Chilean prosecutors to file formal criminal charges against 241 former military and police officers, including more than a dozen generals, many being held in special detainment centers as judges investigate.

Jose Zalaquett, president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and an advisor to Chile’s president, calls these steps a major success.

“In the last five years, Chile has gone further than any other country with justice for human rights. Many officers have been jailed and hundreds of violations are being investigated by its courts.”

In August, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos announced he was preparing new legislation for tackling human rights violations, increasing financial compensation to the families of victims, and extending similar benefits to families of police officers and other officials who died in conflicts with leftist militants during the Pinochet regime.

The Lagos plan, which has attracted bipartisan support, proposes measures for speeding up human rights investigations and trials. Now, as an incentive, junior officers may be eligible for lower sentences or complete immunity if they come forward with new evidence about past crimes.

“Our human rights policy is based on three pillars: truth, justice and reparation,” Mr. Lagos told a recent meeting of foreign reporters. But Mr. Lagos, who was nominated by Mr. Allende in 1973 to be Chile’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, said that in today’s Chile, the government should not move forward without first attempting to build a coalition.

“The Allende government got caught up in the Cold War, and there was a large polarization of society. We know what happened,” he said. “Today, we have to move from polarization to a grand consensus.”

Still, legal observers say that when it comes time to prosecute human rights cases involving Chile’s “disappeared,” the nation’s amnesty law will most likely be applied by the courts and ultimately allow those responsible for crimes to walk away without any legal sanction.

Sebastian Brett, a Human Rights Watch representative in South America, says the three democratically elected post-Pinochet governments have deemed “not politically feasible” any discussion of repealing Chile’s amnesty.

“Nobody knows for sure what the courts will do once they finish their investigations. We hope they will follow international human rights laws [and not apply the amnesty],” he said.

Chilean human rights groups call the latest Lagos plan a step backward, saying it amounts to “an extension” of the Pinochet amnesty.

Three children of human rights victims recently held a hunger strike for nearly a month, naming their protest after Luciano Carrasco, whose well-known journalist father, Jose Carrasco, was murdered in 1986.

Last year, in an act of protest and frustration over the seeming lack of justice in Chile, the 30-year-old Mr. Carrasco killed himself by jumping in front of a speeding Santiago subway train.

A spokesman for the hunger strike, Yuri Gahona, 35, whose father was tortured to death in 1975, said that what most bothers the children of Chile’s dark past is an increasing climate of immunity for Gen. Pinochet and his henchmen.

“Today, the official discourse is that everyone shares in the blame for what happened,” said Mr. Gahona. “With this discourse, they are also now justifying giving impunity and immunity to human rights violators. Our government is displaying a cowardly attitude.”

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