SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile’s courts are considering leveling the country’s first torture charges against members of the 1973-90 Pinochet govern-ment, illustrating the increasing boldness of the country’s justice system and its newfound concern for international law.
Two weeks ago, Judge Joaquin Billard began hearing testimony from 20 former political prisoners who filed an unprecedented lawsuit in December that accused ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet and former Interior Minister Sergio Fernandez of human rights violations.
Though it is one of many recent lawsuits against Gen. Pinochet, the decision to include Mr. Fernandez, a civilian politician at the time and now a senator, sets it apart.
“This is a watershed,” said Roberto Garreton, the representative for Latin America to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “This was unthinkable 20 years ago, but today we have cases before the highest courts because there is a popular national and international demand for justice.
“They will never judge all of the crimes that were committed, but there is evidence of a consolidated advance in this area. It illustrates an increasing respect for international legal norms, but what we still need is for judges to really understand the concept of crimes against humanity,” Mr. Garreton added.
Judge Billard’s investigation comes after another Chilean judge, Alejandro Solis, served notice in mid-March that seven retired military officers, including Manuel Contreras, former head of Chile’s dreaded National Intelligence Directorate, will be tried for tortures committed at Tejas Verdes detention camp in the months after Gen. Pinochet’s 1973 overthrow of elected President Salvador Allende Gossens, a Marxist who the military said killed himself during the siege of the presidential palace.
Juan Manuel de la Nata, 58, one of the victims named in the Tejas Verdes case, described his torture in detail:
“We were submerged in buckets of excrement, there was electricity applied to our genitals and mouth [and] repeated beatings with whips.
“We value the fact that Judge Solis has had the courage to push ahead with our case, despite the resistance from Chile’s judicial power during two decades of dictatorship.”
It may seem incredible that in a country where tens of thousands of people were detained and tortured, no one from the Pinochet regime has been convicted or imprisoned in connection with the crimes.
Chile began confronting past human rights abuses with the return to democracy in 1990, when the government of President Patricio Aylwin established a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission under lawyer Raul Rettig. Its 1991 report detailed 2,000 executions and 1,200 “disappearances” under Gen. Pinochet’s rule. But the report never addressed the issue of torture by the military.
The issue wasn’t raised until last Nov. 10, when the government-appointed Special Commission on Political Prisoners and Torture, after a yearlong investigation, presented a report to President Ricardo Lagos.
Named the “Valech Report” after its coordinator, Sergio Valech, auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop of Santiago, it compiled testimonies of more than 30,000 people tortured in prison during the Pinochet regime.
In response, the Lagos government announced pensions for 27,000 victims.
But human rights lawyer Hugo Gutierrez, who filed the torture lawsuit, said victims have never received justice, and that his clients worry that the Valech report will not help them in the courts because the government declared its contents secret for 50 years, putting it out of reach of Judges Billard and Solis, and any others.
Chile’s Supreme Court is analyzing the constitutionality of that decision.
Either way, these are the first cases to reach Chile’s highest courts since the Valech report.
Mr. Gutierrez says the new judicial offensive on torture, combined with the controversial step of judging civilian politicians, reveals the increasing audacity of Chile’s justice system, and a desire to finally deal with the past.