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Chile: Limits on Abuse Probes Close Door on Justice

Supreme Court Orders Judges to Conclude Investigations Into Pinochet-Era Abuses

(Santiago) — By allowing judges only six months to conclude their investigations into abuses committed during Chile’s military dictatorship, a resolution by the Chilean Supreme Court will cripple efforts to promote accountability for past human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. The Chilean government Wednesday announced plans for a law that would similarly cut short human rights investigations.

“The Chilean justice system was finally making headway on these cases, thanks largely to recent Supreme Court rulings that upheld the principle that human rights violations must be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Now after a concerted campaign by former military officers to curtail these investigations, the court and the government have chosen to abandon this principle and promote impunity.”

Justifying the instructions to close these cases, the court cited international norms that establish the right of the accused to a trial within a reasonable period of time. Yet many of the investigations are in such a preliminary stage that no suspects have been identified or charged.

“This reasoning is absurd,” Vivanco said. “How can you talk about the rights of the accused in cases where no one has been accused yet?”

Under normal rules of criminal procedure in Chile, judges themselves determine at what point a criminal investigation that is yielding few results should be closed. The court’s instructions, issued on Tuesday, give judges only six months either to charge suspects or, if evidence to prosecute is lacking, close the investigation.

The chief justice, Marcos Libedinsky, denied that the time limit would completely halt judicial investigations. He pointed out that the victims’ relatives may still appeal against the closure of cases if they cite specific inquiries that still need to be carried out. Yet, once those inquiries have been completed, the judge would be obliged either to open a prosecution or close the case. Although the state has an obligation to ensure that grave violations of human rights are investigated and those responsible held accountable, this measure would shift the burden of reopening the cases to the victims’ relatives.

In a dissenting opinion, two Supreme Court justices, José Benquis and José Luis Pérez, held that the court had overstepped its powers by imposing a time limit on the investigations, a view shared by some constitutional experts and legislators.

Yet President Lagos praised the court decision and said that it chimed with government measures to find a formula to expedite the trials. Yesterday, Minister of Justice Luis Bates announced that the government would introduce a bill in March to dovetail human rights trials with the new code of criminal procedure due to enter into force across the country in June. According to the government proposals, human rights investigations that have been underway for more than 18 months would have to be wound up within six months.

The measures announced by the Supreme Court and the government this week follow a long military campaign to curtail human rights investigations in the courts. While keeping silent on crucial matters like the fate of hundreds of “disappeared” prisoners, former officers now in the dock have complained bitterly about the delays in the trials. The commander of the army, Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, has persistently lobbied the government for measures to speed them up.

“It’s ironic that former military officers complain about delays in these cases when the real impediment all along has been their own refusal to cooperate with investigators,” said Vivanco. “Unfortunately, both the government and a majority of the Supreme Court now seem to have bought their argument.”

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