(Washington, DC) - Chile must now hold accountable those responsible for gross human rights violations under military rule, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. The paper was issued to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the government of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.
Some 350 military and police officials implicated in human rights violations under the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) are now facing criminal charges. Many are being held in detention pending trial. Among the defendants are twenty-two generals, and forty colonels and lieutenant colonels.
"The thirtieth anniversary of the military coup comes at a time when hopes are high that justice will finally be achieved in Chile," said José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division. "The Chilean courts deserve great credit for the advances they have made in criminal prosecutions. Now the government must give them the tools they need to bring to trial those responsible for the terrible crimes of the Pinochet era."
Until Pinochet's 1998 arrest in London, most human rights crimes committed during military rule were not prosecuted in Chile. Officials were shielded from justice by a 1978 amnesty decree. At least 80 percent of the military government's 2,603 victims died or "disappeared" during the period covered by the decree, during which Chile was under a state of siege.
The recent advances in criminal prosecutions have mostly been possible because the courts have ceased applying the amnesty decree in cases of forced disappearance, ruling that the crime is ongoing until the death of the victim can be established.
Eight defendants, including Manuel Contreras, the chief of Pinochet's secret police, have been convicted of kidnapping in the past year for Pinochet-era crimes. The future of these prosecutions hinges on the future rulings of Chile's appellate courts, including ultimately the Supreme Court.
On August 12, 2003, President Ricardo Lagos announced a package of new measures relating the court cases. These include the offer of immunity from prosecution to persons not already under trial who come forward to testify about abuses, and of more lenient sentences to defendants who provide information that helps establish the facts.
While Human Rights Watch recognizes that these measures might encourage informants to come forward, it has urged the government not to offer immunity to those who participated in gross human rights abuses.
"Senior officials have assured us that the government will not allow the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to escape prosecution, and we trust that it will stick to its guns when these measures are debated in Congress," said Vivanco.
Human Rights Watch praised other initiatives announced by the Lagos government. A commission will be formed to draw up a list of torture victims who will receive compensation, thus addressing a long-neglected problem. The government also says that it will reform the system of military justice. Military courts still exercise jurisdiction over civilians in certain cases, a hitherto untouched legacy of the military government.