Chile: Torture Testimonies to Be Concealed for Fifty Years
Chile: Torture Testimonies to Be Concealed for Fifty Years
Date: December 16, 2004
Source: "Chile: Torture Testimonies To Be Concealed for Fifty Years." Human Rights News (December 16, 2004).
About the Author: This article was published without a byline in Human Rights News, a publication of Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization in the United States. The author is not known.
Chilean voters chose Popular Unity party candidate Salvador Allende to be their president on September 4, 1970. The Popular Unity party, composed of Socialist, Communist, Radical, and Social-Democratic Parties of Chile, represented a dramatic leftist set of political beliefs and policies. Allende's ascent to the presidency angered conservatives in Chile; upper class elites, landowners, and the Catholic Church formed an odd alliance with foreign investors and governments such as the United States in their joint disapproval of Allende's election. Shortly after Allende's win, President Richard Nixon, with his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ordered CIA Director Richard Helms to create an operation to bring down the presidency of Salvador Allende. The initial operation, Project FUBELT, failed, though Nixon authorized Helms to spend between $10 million and $21 million to destabilize Allende's administration.
Allende's socialist policies during his three years in power included land reform that gave peasants ownership over seized private land; greater rights for women in civil society and the political process; increased labor rights; and nationalization of such industries as banking, mining, and steel. Within one year of Allende's presidency, the government controlled more than ninety percent of all industry. A wide range of foreign investors and private international companies had removed operations from Chile with Allende's socialist victory, but those who did not faced the loss of capital through the Popular Unity's policies. The Popular Unity coalition claimed that their goal was to use democratic and constitutional means to accomplish socialist goals; nationalization of industry, according to their plans, gave workers greater economic security and stabilized the economy.
Inflation soared, foreign loans were difficult to obtain and credit constricted, and Washington DC worked to alienate Chile from international financial and diplomatic relationships. The country had been in economic crisis when Allende took over, and by mid-1973 it was still in economic crisis, though one that had redistributed wealth and alienated elites.
On September 11, 1973 in the Chilean capital of Santiago, fifty-seven-year-old General Augusto Pinochet, Commander in Chief of the Army, ordered the seizure of the port city of Valparaiso, shut down radio stations, and bombed, then captured La Moneda, the presidential palace. By day's end, Allende was dead; while some accounts report that he committed suicide, others insist that military forces killed him and staged his death to look like suicide.
Pinochet immediately took control and later installed himself as president. International credit lines opened up, and Pinochet embarked on an economic experiment, "The Chilean Miracle," which claimed to follow neoliberalism. Using the neoliberal economic theories of Milton Friedman, a University of Chicago economist, Pinochet reversed Allende's land reform and returned land to elite owners, removed many social programs that Allende had created, and let a "free market" approach reign. The effect on the poor and working-class elements in society was grim, with no financial safety net in place.
While the economic policies were harsh, Pinochet's human rights policies were even harsher. In an effort to destroy all leftist, socialist, or communist elements in society, Pinochet ordered the execution of many Marxist leaders and used public facilities such as the National Stadium to round up alleged leftists for detainment, torture, and at times execution. Wives were tortured and sexually assaulted in front of husbands; daughters in front of fathers; dogs used to sexually assault women; and electroshock devices were used by soldiers for torture.
Between 1973 and 1976, an alleged 40,000 Chilean citizens were tortured, and to date more than 4,000 remain "disappeared," their whereabouts unknown. Many leftists and accused leftists fled Chile during the coup and shortly after being released from detention centers. In 1978, Pinochet pushed through the Chilean legislature an act that granted all soldiers immunity for their actions.
In 1989, Pinochet permitted elections for the Presidency for the first time in sixteen years; he lost the election, and in 1990 handed over control of the highest office in Chile to Patricio Aylwin. Pinochet installed himself as a senator for life, and remained Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces until 1998.
A law approved last night by the Chilean Congress that denies courts access to the testimonies of thousands of torture victims gravely undermines efforts to prosecute abuses committed under the military government (1973–1990), Human Rights Watch said today. Last month a presidential commission released a report on the use of torture during the military dictatorship that was based on testimony gathered from thousands of victims. The law bars those testimonies from being divulged for 50 years and explicitly prohibits them from being revealed even to the courts.
The law was approved by both chambers of Congress in less than 48 hours and its secrecy provisions were scarcely debated.
"After refusing for years to investigate torture allegations, Chile has finally collected evidence that could help identify and prosecute those responsible for thousands of abuses," said Joseé Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. "It's incomprehensible that the government and congress have now deliberately prevented this from happening."
In recent years, Chilean judges have shown courage and tenacity in investigating the systematic human rights abuses of the military era, but these efforts will be seriously impeded by the secrecy rule.
The law provides reparations for more than 27,000 torture victims identified by the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, whose report President Ricardo Lagos made public on November 28. Victims will receive annual pensions of between 1,350,000 pesos and 1,550,000 pesos (approximately US$2,300 and US$2,600). Children born in prison or detained with their parents will receive a lump-sum payment of 4 million pesos (approximately US$6,800).
The law's preamble justifies the secrecy rule on the grounds that those who testified before the commission were told that their testimonies would remain confidential. It maintains that these reassurances of confidentiality gave victims confidence to testify and that the government is bound to honor its pledge. It also states that using the testimonies as evidence in judicial proceedings would distort the original purpose of the commission, which was solely to name victims and provide them with reparations.
"If victims want to keep their testimony private, their wish should be fully respected," said Vivanco. "But it is totally unacceptable to impose this secrecy rule on others who would prefer that their testimonies contribute to the prosecution of those who tortured them."
The Chilean government has clarified that individual victims are free to make their testimonies public or submit them to the courts if they wish to do so. Yet, without access to the testimonies, judges investigating torture cases will be prevented from identifying many victims who could contribute evidence as witnesses. And the victims themselves will not know of the relevance of their evidence to cases under investigation.
The government must ask those who testified whether they want their testimonies to be made available to the courts. The government, which formed the commission, has a responsibility to turn over this information to the courts, rather than put the onus on the victims.
After Chile's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1991 reported on human rights violations committed under the military government, it turned over its findings on individual cases to the courts.
Less than a week after the release of the torture commission's report in November, a group of lawyers presented a petition on behalf of 21 torture victims. The petition presents charges of torture and illicit association against former military ruler General Augusto Pinochet and Senator Sergio Fernández, who was an interior minister in the military government. The victims' lawyers have requested that Judge Joaquín Billard, who has been appointed by the Santiago Appeals Court to investigate the complaint, obtain relevant testimonies from the commission.
"The torture commission has helped uncover one of the most painful secrets of the military regime," said Vivanco. "If the evidence collected by the commission is kept secret for half a century, many of those responsible for the abuses will never be held accountable in their lifetime."
On October 17, 1998, while recovering from back surgery in London, Pinochet was arrested in connection with the deaths of Spanish citizens during his years in power in Chile. Spain had contacted the United Kingdom to formally request extradition for the arrest.
The arrest sparked worldwide shock—and elation—in human rights groups. Pinochet, however, had engineered a change in the Chilean constitution giving him senator-for-life privileges, as well as immunity from any charges for actions during his time in power. The question in late 1998 was: did this immunity extend to foreign soil? Could Spain and the United Kingdom work together to charge and try him?
In his first public statement, on November 8, 1998, Pinochet announced, "I am at peace with myself and with the Chilean people." Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, called for his release. In the ensuing months, Pinochet's lawyers used a variety of legal maneuvers, while Chile cancelled diplomatic meetings with the United Kingdom and threatened to suspend Chilean flights to the Falkland Islands in South America.
Pinochet publicly announced his ill health and advanced age of eighty three and pointedly used his health concerns as a justification for not being tried. In March of 2000, Pinochet was freed by the United Kingdom and declared "medically unfit" for trial. In the meantime, officials and judges in Chile worked to strip Pinochet of his immunity; bowing to pressures from torture victims and families of the "disappeared," by early 2001 Pinochet was in Chile and placed under house arrest for a growing number of charges, including kidnapping, from the years 1973 to 1990.
The Chilean court reversed its decision in 2002, declaring Pinochet "mentally unfit" to stand trial; by 2005, after the release of the Chilean National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture report, Pinochet once again was indicted. As of 2006, his case was still pending in Chilean courts.
By barring access to Chilean torture victims' testimony for fifty years, should Pinochet ever stand trial, those materials could not be used by prosecutors building a case against the former dictator. While the extension of torture survivor benefits acts as a recognition of the abuse suffered by citizens at the hands of the brutal military regime, the classification of a piece of Chile's recent-and painful-history closes off inquiry into an ongoing and relevant societal issue.
Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. New York: New Press, 2004.
Carrera, Carolina. "Secrets Revealed: Women Victims of Sexual Violence as Torture During Chile's Era of Political Repression, 1973–1990." Women's Health Journal 2005, 1 (January 1, 2005).
Amnesty International. "An International Crime: Even One Torture Victim Is One Too Many." 〈http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engamr220101999〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).