(New York)- Even though the Chilean armed forces have admitted responsibility in the deaths of some 200 people who "disappeared" under military rule, the Chilean courts should continue to prosecute those and all other cases of the "disappeared," Human Rights Watch said today.
Chilean courts have managed to prosecute cases of the "disappeared" despite the 1978 decree granting amnesty to the armed forces for such crimes. The courts have used a jurisprudential rule that establishes a "disappearance" as a continuing crime -- one that extends beyond the period of military rule because the victims have never been found and therefore the criminal act is still underway. Some have argued that information on the victims' deaths means the amnesty decree should terminate ongoing prosecutions.
Human Rights Watch said that the information provided by the military was cryptic, and far too sparse in most cases to allow the courts to verify it. While the place where the bodies were dumped is approximated, there are no details regarding the date when the prisoners or their corpses were disposed of, whether boats or air transport were used, how the prisoners met their deaths, or what happened to their bodies after they were killed.
"It is a step forward for the armed forces to have finally owned up to what they must have known all along," said Jos?Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "But without independent confirmation, no judges worth their salt could possibly close an investigation on the basis of this information. To award officers an amnesty when there is still no proof of death other than the armed forces' word would add insult to the anguish of the relatives."
The armed forces recently released a report describing the fate of 200 victims, in fulfillment of a government-sponsored agreement with human rights lawyers signed last June. Among the report's revelations was that the armed forces dumped the bodies of more than 150 prisoners into the ocean, rivers and lakes of Chile. Most of the cases included in the armed forces' list date from the first six months of the military government, before the repression was placed in the hands of a centralized apparatus, the secret police known as the DINA.
"The information is a devastating confirmation of the armed forces' responsibility for horrifying atrocities," said Vivanco. "It is particularly important as it represents the first details the armed forces have ever given about their terrible crimes, which have left deep scars in Chile."
Human Rights Watch urged President Lagos to take further steps to find the missing information, and to clarify the fate of hundreds of prisoners who "disappeared" after their abduction by the DINA, which responded ultimately to General Pinochet alone. To do this, the government must search for new methods to ensure cooperation, such as penalizing those who conceal information, or providing benefits to those who cooperate, while taking care that the courts are given the resources and support they need to investigate these horrific crimes and bring those responsible to justice.