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Human Rights Developments

On December 11, 1993, in a significant step for the consolidation of democracy, Chile held its first presidential elections since the end of military rule. Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle was elected President as the candidate of the center-left Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, the governing coalition under then-President Patricio Aylwin.

Under Aylwin's leadership, Chile had made notable progress in reinstituting democracy and reestablishing respect for human rights, a trend that continued under Frei. In marked contrast to the wholesale violence of the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chilean government did not engage in a consistent pattern of gross human rights violations. Nonetheless, its record of respect for human rights remained flawed, in large part due to the legacy of the former military regime. Most obviously, the amnesty law decreed under military rule has continued to pose an enormous obstacle to the investigation and prosecution of abuses committed between 1973 and 1978. In addition, many members of the judiciary were appointed by the military; their continuing authority, and in particular their presence on the Supreme Court, contributed to impunity. An even more serious obstacle to justice was the broad jurisdiction of military courts over crimes committed by members of the armed forces, including police, in which civilians were victims. Finally, the limitations on civilian legal jurisdiction were mirrored by restrictions on institutional accountability: specifically, the elected authorities still lacked control over appointments to the armed forces and the police.

To some extent, the Frei administration, like its predecessor, was restricted in its ability to remove the remaining obstacles to justice and respect for human rights. Because of military appointees in the Senate and a "binomial" voting system that favors minority parties, the opposition had disproportionate strength in Congress, including a Senate majority. Although Frei submitted reform legislation targeting some of these undemocratic aspects, its passage through Congress_in light of rightist opposition and the super-majority required for constitutional amendment_was expected to be difficult at best.

The National Corporation of Reparation and Reconciliation, which succeeded the truth commission that had worked from 1990-1991 ("the Rettig Commission"), continued investigating human rights abuses that occurred under the former military regime. In 1994 it revised upward its estimate of the number of people murdered for political reasons during that period to 3,129. The exhumation of bodies also continued, although, in one notable case, the head of the army Subofficials School in Rinconada de Maipú squarely blocked judicially mandated exhumations on its property.

While the record was mixed, there were some important breakthroughs in prosecutions for human rights violations during military rule, notably in the trial and appellate courts. The most important case involved the prosecution of two DINA (former secret police) officers charged with being the "intellectual authors" of the 1976 Letelier-Moffitt murders. On November 12, 1993, the two offenders were convicted and sentenced to six- and seven-year prison terms for their part in the murders. (Largely due to intense U.S. pressure stemming from the fact that the murders occurred in Washington, D.C. and Moffitt was an American citizen, the prosecutions had been exempted from a 1978 amnesty.)

Two other potentially historic cases from this period were decided by different chambers of the Santiago Appeals Court in September. The Third Chamber reopened the prosecution of DINA agent Osvaldo Romo for the 1974 abduction and murder of Lumi Videla, holding that crimes committed in violation of international law are not subject to national amnesty. The Eighth Chamber issued a similar ruling a few days later in another case involving Romo. Although both cases were on appeal to the Supreme Court at this writing, they represented significant developments in the jurisprudence on amnesty.

In what might be a hopeful indicator for these appeals, the Supreme Court in April reopened the judicial inquiry into the 1976 murder of Carmelo Soria, a United Nations official who was killed by DINA agents. Based on the amnesty law, the investigation had been closed, after a number of procedural complications, when DINA's involvement was established. On appeal, however, the Supreme Court credited the plaintiffs' argument that application of the amnesty would violate Chile's international obligations, specifically, the Vienna Convention on crimes against international civil servants and diplomats.

Judicial investigations into human rights crimes post-dating the amnesty continued as well. These resulted in a few convictions, the most dramatic of which involved sixteen former police officers belonging to a secret agency known as DICOMCAR, who abducted three communists in 1985, tortured them, and killed them by cutting their throats. On March 31, the officers accused in this case_known as the degollados case_were convicted of kidnapping, murder and terrorist conspiracy.

Institutional restrictions marring even human rights successes such as this became apparent, however, when the first political crisis of Frei's administration exploded. Besides the degollados convictions, seven high-ranking police officers including General Rodolfo Stange, the head of the Carabineros, Chile's police force, were accused of dereliction of duty for failing to prevent or investigate the murders. The Frei government, which lacked the power to dismiss Stange, requested that he resign, unsuccessfully. A highly public political standoff ensued, finally resulting in Stange's "vacation," but he returned to his post in July after the courts ruled his conduct not criminal. The Frei administration, unable to act, simply issued its "regrets" about Stange's return.

The dangers of police autonomy from civilian control have been graphically illustrated by recent cases of abuse of detainees and excessive force. The Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the People (CODEPU), which monitors police treatment of detainees, lodged nineteen lawsuits involving torture and physical abuse between October 1993 and September 1994. The police also came under heavy criticism for their alleged "shoot first, ask questions later" policy, demonstrated most notoriously in the Las Condes incident of October 21, 1993, in which seven people were killed when police fired indiscriminately on a bus carrying civilian passengers as well as members of an armed opposition group.

Besides ill-treatment, security-related detainees were likely to face prolonged incommunicado detention and denial of their due process rights. Such abuses were rarely questioned by the courts. In what was thus an unusual ruling, the first chamber of the Santiago Appeals Court overturned the convictions of eleven alleged armed opposition group members in October. The court found that, besides being tortured, some of the prisoners had been held incommunicado for twenty days during questioning, and forced to incriminate themselves in order to secure the release of their illegally detained relatives.

Existing laws, though enforced less intensively than previously, still permitted gross infringements on the right to free expression. For example, two journalists who criticized the Supreme Court's decision to relinquish jurisdiction over an important disappearance case were prosecuted for insults, libel and defamation under the Law of State Security, receiving suspended prison sentences in June; other of their controversial writings led to indictments for "inciting sedition," presently pending in military courts. Another example was the November confiscation of a day's issue of the newspaper La Epoca for allegedly violating the reporting ban on a human rights case. La Epoca's editorial response to this action_that "the reporting ban was used as an extension of the amnesty . . . [restricting] the public's right to be informed"_was, in the view of Human Rights Watch/Americas, persuasive.

The Right to Monitor

Overlapping with restrictions on free expression was the legal harassment of human rights lawyers, which, besides curbing their speech, hindered their ability to litigate on behalf of victims of abuses. The close encounter with military justice endured by Héctor Salazar Ardiles, lawyer for the relatives of the degollados victims, was indicative of the phenomenon. In April, he was charged with sedition by a military prosecutor for comments critical of the police high command, detained, and then released on bail; in June, his indictment was upheld by a military appeals court; in August, finally, the Supreme Court overturned his indictment and put a stop to the prosecution.

U.S. Policy

Chile removed an important impediment to good relations with the United States by sentencing the offenders in the Letelier-Moffitt assassination case, facilitating the current emphasis on commercial relations between the two countries. With that ruling, human rights issues were dropped from the U.S. agenda vis-a-vis Chile; the Clinton administration did not, in fact, even comment on the ruling or make any other public statements regarding human rights during the year.

Having strengthened commercial ties with Canada and Mexico by ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States_prompted by a decade of uninterrupted growth in the Chilean economy_looked to Chile in 1994 as the locus for further trade liberalization. U.S. interest in signing a free trade agreement with Chile was signaled in March when U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor attended President Frei's inauguration, and in May when the Clinton administration approached Congress seeking fast-track authority for the proposed negotiations. Trade negotiations had not formally begun by year's end, however.

Besides the proposed trade agreement, there was little U.S. action relevant to human rights in Chile, except for the grant of $100,000 in fiscal year 1994 for Defense Training (formerly International Military Education and Training), an amount that was due to be matched in fiscal year 1995. The focus of the training, according to the State Department, was to "emphasiz[e] the proper role of the military in a democracy."

The Work of

Human Rights Watch/Americas

In the view of Human Rights Watch/Americas, the current impetus toward a free trade agreement between the United States and Chile provided a two-fold opportunity for human rights advocacy. First, in assessing Chile's suitability as a close trading partner the United States should, as a threshold matter, inquire into its record of respect for human rights. Second, a free trade agreement might_and should, in our opinion_incorporate institutional mechanisms for preventing human rights abuses and remedying any abuses that occur.

In light of the first consideration, Human Rights Watch/Americas maintained a representative in Santiago whose work monitoring events and conditions led to the release of a comprehensive report on the state of human rights during the final period of the Aylwin government. The report, titled Unfinished Business: Human Rights in Chile at the Start of the Frei Presidency, was issued in May, together with an open letter to President Frei summarizing our concerns regarding human rights in Chile. In addition to wide coverage in the Chilean press, we received a positive response from the deputy minister of foreign relations, who alluded to constitutional and legal obstacles that impede the Chilean Congress from effecting the legal changes necessary to resolve certain of Chile's human rights problems.

In August, after preliminary free trade negotiations had begun, we wrote an open letter to U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor urging attention to human rights in the negotiation and drafting of a free trade agreement. We pressed two recommendations in particular: first, that the proposed agreement contain each country's explicit commitment to respect the rights articulated in the American Convention on Human Rights, with the strength of these commitments to be monitored through the submission and review of yearly compliance reports; and second, that the agreement contain a mechanism for the adjudication of individual complaints of human rights violations that arise in the context of the commercial relations permitted by the agreement.

Finally, Human Rights Watch/Americas continued litigating on behalf of relatives of the disappeared before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), seeking reparations and condemnation of the former military regime's egregious violations of the American Convention on Human Rights. Together with the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), we submitted briefs to the IACHR in a case involving seventy disappearances carried out by state security forces in the mid-1970s.

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