- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

SANTIAGO, Chile — Mireya Garcia was 17 when police knocked on her door eight days after the September 11, 1973, military coup and hauled her to the Quiriqina Island Naval Base in southern Chile.

A member of the Chilean Socialist Youth Party, she was held at the naval base and tortured for nine months. Her brother was among the “disappeared.” On her release, she still had to report her daily movements to Chilean police until she escaped to Mexico in 1982.

Married twice, she is childless by choice. “I did not want my children to live what I have lived — to inhabit a world capable of such horror,” she said.

Mrs. Garcia said recent human rights progress in this conservative South American country of 16 million people has brought “more light and hope” to her life, but now she fears Chile is abandoning justice.

Its Supreme Court ruled this year that by the end of July, the special judges assigned to the human rights cases stemming from Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-90 dictatorship — when 3,197 persons were killed for political reasons — must charge suspects, or, if evidence is lacking, officially conclude their investigations.

Families will have the right to appeal a closed case, but the burden of investigation will be theirs. Human rights groups say such haste will cause many cases to be overlooked or dismissed. Mrs. Garcia, 49, and now vice president of Chile’s oldest human rights group, Families of the disappeared, said it has filed appealed the deadline in Chile’s courts and, if that fails, will resort to the Inter-American Human Rights Court in San Jose, Costa Rica.

“This is totally arbitrary and anti-constitutional,” she said. “There are still more than 1,000 cases where we do not know what happened to the bodies of those missing.”

Of the 3,197 persons killed during Gen. Pinochet’s rule, about a third disappeared — many are believed to have been tossed into the sea or buried in unmarked mass graves. The high court’s controversial decision was due in large part to the shocking suicide in mid-January of German Barriga, a former high-ranking member of the Chilean secret police.

Mr. Barriga, 59, leaped to his death from a balcony of an 18-story Santiago apartment building. In a suicide note, he said that he was distraught because the Funa, a self-styled “outing commission” made up of human rights activists, kept hounding him and had cost him his job.

He also dreaded being sent to prison on multiple charges of murder and torture stemming from his years in the secret police.

Sympathy for Mr. Barriga and his family among present and former members of the military — some Pinochet loyalists, other career military people who felt Mr. Barriga was “just following orders” — prompted the top officers to renew their long-standing demand that the courts speed the Pinochet-era cases to a close.

To the surprise and dismay of human rights groups, President Ricardo Lagos, leader of Chile’s center-left coalition government, moved quickly to publicly back the military’s demand.

“What has happened is an expression of a slow judicial system,” Mr. Lagos said shortly after Mr. Barriga’s suicide.

At a recent press conference here in the capital, international and Chilean human rights organizations said the Supreme Court’s decision to end the mandate of the special judges, which expires on July 25 this year, would be the worst setback for human rights since Chile returned to democracy in 1990.

More than 350 human rights cases remain open. Almost all of them began in 2001, when special human rights judges were assigned by the court to investigate the large number of Pinochet-era complaints that remained after nearly three decades of court inaction.

High-profile cases that could be closed include the suspicious death of former President Eduardo Frei Montalva, the popular Christian Democratic Party leader who led the country from 1964 to 1970. New evidence has emerged that Mr. Frei died from a toxic bacteria administered by government agents while he was hospitalized in a Santiago clinic in 1982.

In 1986, Argentina passed its “Ley de Punto Final” (“Full Stop Law”), which set deadlines for its courts to complete their human rights investigations of that country’s “dirty war” in the 1970s.

Sebastian Brett, the Human Rights Watch representative in Chile, said the Supreme Court’s termination order is tantamount to Argentina’s Full Stop law.

“It’s not an automatic ‘Punto Final’ — some cases may be appealed and kept open after the July 25 deadline,” said Mr. Brett. “But in effect it is, because the judges will no longer have the time and resources needed to do the job.”

Mr. Brett said the special judges will have to return to their other court duties full time after the July deadline. Moreover, they will no longer have a budget to travel or hire experts, nor the technical and administrative support they currently have in human rights cases. Moreover, the criminal investigations section of the police will no longer provide personnel to help investigate the cases.

Recent moves to turn the page on the grim past came just as courts began to make progress. International pressure on Chile was ratcheted up several notches after Gen. Pinochet was detained in Britain in 1998 on an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish magistrate.

In July 1999, Chile’s courts — publicly embarrassed by their lack of action on the thousands of outstanding human rights cases — reinterpreted a 1978 amnesty law decreed by Gen. Pinochet. Since then, 404 military and intelligence officers of his regime have been charged and 70 have been convicted, according to the Interior Ministry. The list includes 36 army, air force and police generals, and dozens of other officers and noncommissioned officers.

Chilean human rights organizations especially applaud several recent court decisions.

In January, the Supreme Court reversed rulings from 2002 that had excused Gen. Pinochet from trials on mass-murder charges on grounds of his mental health. The ailing 89-year-old former dictator was placed under house arrest at his coastal estate in central Chile, but was released after posting $3,500 bail. An appeal filed by his lawyers will be decided this month.

In all, Gen. Pinochet faces four legal problems, including a continuing investigation into about $16 million the ex-dictator reputedly stashed in secret bank accounts abroad between 1985 and 2002.

In November, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the case of Miguel Angel Sandoval, a leftist who was “disappeared” in 1975 by Gen. Pinochet’s secret police. In its ruling, the court for the first time placed Chile’s responsibilities toward international human rights treaties above Gen. Pinochet’s edicts, issuing convictions without regard to his amnesty law.

Roberto Garreton, 63, was a lawyer for the Catholic Church’s Vicariate of Solidarity, a human rights organization, throughout the military regime and now works as the United Nations’ human rights representative to Latin America and the Caribbean.

During the dictatorship, Mr. Garreton recalled recently, more than 10,000 lawsuits were filed to free Chileans imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment as part of Gen. Pinochet’s crackdown on leftists and other political foes. Only 11 cases were successful.

“The human rights progress [more recently] has been fantastic,” Mr. Garreton said. “In no other country in Latin America are there are so many people presently charged with human rights violations.”

But Mr. Garreton was vehement in his criticism of the new court deadline, calling it a serious “step backward.”

“It is a scandal,” the lawyer said. “These are crimes against humanity. You must give it more time.”

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