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Letter to President Clinton Urging U.S. Involvement in Pinochet Case

President William Jefferson Clinton
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Clinton:

Human Rights Watch urges the United States to help promote judicial accountability for the crimes committed during the military rule of Augusto Pinochet. We look to the United States to indicate clearly and publicly to the governments of Spain and the United Kingdom that it supports efforts to achieve justice for crimes against humanity committed under the direction of General Pinochet. As a concrete measure of that support, the U.S. can and must cooperate fully with Spanish authorities investigating the case by providing all evidence in its possession of these crimes.

The systematic human rights violations committed by the Chilean military during the Pinochet dictatorship amount to crimes against humanity.  Official Chilean investigations have confirmed that more than 3,100 people were victims of extrajudicial execution or "disappearance." Thousands of others were victims of torture, arbitrary detention, forced internal exile, or other abuses.

International law-as well the prevention of future atrocities-demands the prosecution of those responsible for these abuses. The Chilean military granted itself an amnesty in 1978, however, and the Chilean justice system has investigated and prosecuted only the rarest of cases.

Self-conferred impunity should hold no sway internationally.  Future tyrants must understand that punishment awaits those who commit crimes against humanity, internationally if not domestically.  The United States should therefore encourage and support efforts to prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity.

The United States also has a more immediate interest in a full investigation of General Pinochet's crimes. According to Chile's official National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least three U.S. citizens were murdered in Chile after the 1973 coup.  These include Charles Edmund Horman and Frank Randal Teruggi, who were executed by the military in September 1973.  In addition, in September 1976, a terrorist car-bombing killed former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and U.S. citizen Ronni Karpen Moffitt in Washington, DC.  A U.S. grand jury indicted four members of Pinochet's security police, the DINA, including the agency's chief of operations Army Brig. Pedro Espinoza and its director Army Gen. Manuel Contreras Seplveda, a man who reported directly to General Pinochet.  In 1995, both Contreras and Espinoza went to prison in Chile for the crime.

The undertaking by Spanish judges Baltazar Garzón and Manuel García-Castellón to bring General Pinochet to justice is based on well-established international law and practice giving Spain the right to assert jurisdiction over crimes against Spanish nationals in Chile.  In addition, as those who commit crimes against humanity are considered enemies of all mankind, their crimes, even against non-Spaniards, can also be tried by Spanish courts.

Nonetheless, public statements by U.S. officials since Pinochet's detention by law enforcement authorities in the United Kingdom have been disappointingly restrained, referring only to the need to avoid commenting on the judicial process and suggesting that the matter is strictly between Spain, the United Kingdom, and Chile.  This is not a question of interference in judicial independence, however.  Any Spanish judicial decision to seek extradition would have to be approved by the Spanish government, and the Spanish government should know where the U.S. stands.  The lack of public U.S. support for the investigation-particularly given the U.S.'s direct interest in the case-sends the signal that the United States is indifferent to bringing General Pinochet to trial.

The U.S.'s muted position on the need to bring Pinochet to justice contrasts with its active attempts earlier this year to seek to bring Pol Pot to trial in Canada.  That effort would have required Canada to use a pure theory of universal jurisdiction-without Canada having any particular nexus to the crimes in question-while the Spanish investigation is currently proceeding on the basis of the murder, torture, and "disappearances" of Spanish citizens, a more traditional jurisdictional theory.  The U.S. should be at least as supportive of Spain's assertion of jurisdiction over Pinochet as it was of attempts to try Pol Pot in Canada.

A concrete measure of U.S. support would be to provide all the information the U.S. has collected relating to General Pinochet's role in crimes against humanity, including the extensive evidence it amassed in the investigation of the Letelier-Moffitt murders.  We are concerned, however, by reports that the U.S. has been stingy in its cooperation with requests made by Spanish law enforcement authorities acting under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the U.S. and Spain.  A public statement by the U.S. on the importance of accountability would also serve to dispel the impression that the U.S. does not favor the investigation going forward.

We know that, just as the Chilean judiciary has been unable to prosecute General Pinochet, the government of Chile now opposes the Spanish extradition request.  But while domestic legal and political considerations in Chile may give the country's leaders grounds to explain their actions, international law recognizes no such excuses. The same is true of the Chilean government's claim of diplomatic immunity, since Pinochet was not on diplomatic mission or in an official delegation temporarily conferring diplomatic status.  In any event, diplomatic immunity should not be a shield for those accused of committing crimes against humanity.  Similarly, we believe that short-term concerns that the prosecution of crimes against humanity will jeopardize transitions by causing tyrants to cling to power are outweighed by the international community's long-term interest in making it clear to future tyrants that they face punishment if they embark on crimes against humanity.

Mr. President, Human Rights Watch, together with many governments and victims of abuse, viewed the United States' positions during this summer's diplomatic conference in Rome to establish an International Criminal Court as a retreat from traditional U.S. support for the prosecution of crimes against humanity.  U.S. leaders responded that it was not.  Particularly since this case involves a responsible democracy pursuing crimes committed against its own citizens, the Pinochet investigation is an opportunity to resurrect the United States' image as a proponent of accountability for the worst international crimes. 

Sincerely, 

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

cc:     Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

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