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Chile's secret laws

Long after Pinochet's rule, secret laws remain on the books in Chile.

A 1989 photograph of Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile. (Claudia Daut/Reuters)

SANTIAGO — During the dark days of Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship, attorney Roberto Garreton stumbled across something unusual: huge gaps — marked "SECRET" — in the lists of Chilean laws.

Those classified laws — Garreton eventually tallied more than 100, most of which were related to the defense ministry — remain in effect in Chile to this day, long after the end of Pinochet's rule in 1990. The original copies sit stored in a vault in the port city of Valparaiso, while some Chilean lawmakers struggle to get them declassified. 

The laws created a bizarre situation in Chile: How should Chileans obey laws they know nothing about? 

“There was a law on the military draft, for example, that said that the crimes mentioned in one of its provisions carried a certain penalty. The law was public, but the provision detailing the crime you could be punished for was secret!” said Garreton, a prominent human rights lawyer who began making a list of all the secret laws in 1985.  

The military junta that governed Chile from 1973 to 1990 didn't much care about this surreal situation. Under Pinochet's rule, Congress was closed, the Supreme Court was eating out of the junta's hands and the federal comptroller was out of the loop. Four junta members presiding over "legislative committees" were the only people in the country deciding what laws were needed, how they should be written, and whether the Chilean public should know about them. At a time when anyone could be arrested, tortured, executed or made to disappear without reason, transparency wasn't exactly a guiding principle.

With the end of military rule, members of the recently reopened Congress were handed some of the original copies of all the secret laws (the location of all of the laws is unclear). A year later, the Senate recommended that some be declassified and the rest stored in a vault. But in the end, none of the secret laws were made public, and senators are forbidden from disclosing their contents.

“They arrived in 1990, and have been in a safebox ever since. Senators can seek permission to look at them, but in the presence of the general secretariat of the Senate, and only for reading and taking notes," said Pilar Silva, a senior officer at the secretariat. "They can’t make copies, and they are barred from revealing their contents."

There have, of course, been leaks over the years.

According to those reports, most of the secret laws relate to military personnel, salaries, hierarchy and structure, military justice, troop movements and weapons purchases. Also secret were parts of the decree that created the Chilean secret police, called DINA, and its successor, CNI, as well as laws governing money funneled to the military without any oversight.