Last month, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile introduced a bill in Congress that appears to be a reaction to the recent release, in Peru, of the former autocratic President Alberto Fujimori. The proposal limits the early release of people convicted of crimes against humanity committed during the country’s dictatorship (1973-1990). That may at first glance seem like a step toward greater accountability, but it’s not. The government of Chile learned the wrong lessons from Peru.
Fujimori was serving a 25-year sentence for his role in extrajudicial killings, abductions, and enforced disappearances, when, on Christmas Eve, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski granted him a “humanitarian pardon.” The release righfully sparked an outcry from relatives of the victims and thousands of Peruvians. In Chile, the timing of the bill suggests it was at least in part a response to Fujimori’s release.
The bill would make it harder for people convicted of gross abuses to be released early from prison, even if they suffer serious illnesses. A humanitarian pardon, as it stands now in Chile, is only available to for prisoners serving life sentences when they have an “inminent risk of death” or are “unable to look after themselves.”
But the bill would ban pardons for people convicted for crimes against humanity even under those circumstances. And it would allow prisoners convicted of these crimes who have terminal illnesses to be transfered to house arrest only if they express “remorse” about the crimes, the pain caused to victims, and “the context” in which the abuses took place.
What is wrong with Fujimori’s release, though, is not the absence of harsh laws in Peru but the politically motivated manipulation of the law. The pardon appears to have been part of a negotiation to allow President Kuczynski to avoid impeachment.
Forcing terminally ill prisoners to repent to be released is bad policy and could amount to cruel and inhumane treatment. The bill seems to forget that everyone, including those responsible for the worst atrocities, deserves fair and just treatment during detention.
As Gisela Ortiz, whose brother was a victim of enforced disappearance during the Fujimori regime, put it, “What we cannot accept is that a criminal and his allies mock the victims by misusing a presidential power to which they are not entittled.” The victims would have accepted a humanitarian pardon “if the conditions were met,” Ortiz wrote, because they “understand how hard it is to die lonely in prison.”
The bill would make political manipulations harder by transferring power over the early release of prisoners from the executive branch to judges. But the bulk of the bill’s clauses convey the mistaken idea that justice can only be served when criminals die in prison.
Under international human rights standards, sentences that are grossly or manifestly inadequate to the gravity of the crime do not constitute accountability and deprive victims of the justice they deserve. If meaningful justice is delivered, however, there is nothing in international law forbidding governments from applying sentencing benefits—including sentence reductions and house arrest—for those convicted of grave abuses, as long as the process has been fair and transparent. There are many situations in which authorities should allow the early release of prisoners serving lengthy prison terms, including when they suffer serious ilnesses.
If the Chilean Congress wants to bolster the fight against impunity, it should fix this bill. Otherwise, it will send the message that it’s willing to mix up cruelty and punishment.