A question of justice

SANTIAGO — The possibility that human rights violators may be included in a general pardon next year is revealing how far Chile is from healing the wounds of its past of torture, executions and disappearances.

When the Catholic Bishops Conference announced last month that it would submit a proposal to the government for a massive pardon of prisoners on occasion of Chile’s Bicentennial celebrations, the right-wing opposition jumped on the opportunity to include its imprisoned military allies.

For years, these rightist parties, founded in the '80s by civilians supporting the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, were accomplices to its well documented human rights atrocities, refusing to acknowledge they ever took place. With the return to democracy and their need to become politically palatable to the electorate, they timidly began to admit the truth, but have nevertheless worked hard to put an end to human rights trials. President Michelle Bachelet initially said she would consider any and all proposals for a pardon but alleges that her words were misinterpreted and that she is not seeking any sort of pardon for the military. Her father, an air force general, was arrested after the military coup that toppled socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973 and died in prison after repeated torture sessions. She and her mother were arrested and held in the infamous torture center Villa Grimaldi before being forced into exile.

More than 50 agents are serving prison terms for human rights violations, while another 700 are still subject to excruciatingly slow judicial investigations. So far, very few have cooperated in providing any information that could lead to finding the more than 1,000 missing, or establish responsibilities for thousands of other deaths. In 2001, a government initiative to have the military provide information on the disappeared produced a list of 200 victims and their supposed whereabouts. Much of the information turned out to be false.

Many families of those imprisoned or killed are still waiting for the culprits to be charged and say that justice is far from served.

“Most of our disappeared continue to be an absolute mystery. We don’t know what happened to them, where they were taken, or who, when and how they were killed. Many of those who have been sentenced don’t want to provide information. There is still a long ways to go before we can say justice has been done,” said Laura Elgueta, whose brother Luis disappeared without a trace in 1976. No one has been indicted for his abduction.

On the other side are those who would distinguish between those who willingly committed human rights violations and those who were forced to do so by their superiors; some take an even harder line and insist no crimes were committed.

The pardon suggestion has had several unlikely supporters, including some in Bachelet's government.

One is her undersecretary of aviation, retired air force captain Raul Vergara. “The military shouldn’t be excluded from the pardon just because they are military,” he said in an interview with the conservative paper El Mercurio.

His comments wouldn’t have caused such uproar if he hadn’t been part of the group of air force officers jailed and tortured along with Bachelet’s father.

In a public statement, the Organization of Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers in the Case “Bachelet and Others 1973” called on the government not to pardon any of their fellow officers.

“The members of the military serving sentences haven’t been convicted because they are military, but because they have committed horrendous crimes … Pardoning them would be a terrible example for future military generations, who could behave in a similar fashion, knowing that in the end, they would also be pardoned,” reads the statement. The Catholic Church proposal would free prisoners over 70, those suffering from terminal illnesses, mothers with small children, petty criminals and first offenders, and could apply to some 3,000 convicts and another 50,000 already on conditional freedom. Once the president receives the proposal, the executive will draft a bill and submit the pardon to congressional approval.

The Bishops Conference insists that it won’t include the worst human rights violators, such as Manuel Contreras, director of the secret intelligence service DINA responsible for most violations, and who has accumulated sentences for almost 300 years for multiple crimes.

But organizations such as the September 10 Movement, which defends the military coup, are calling for the liberation of whom they consider to be “political prisoners.”

“What Chile needs is an end to all these investigations, not a pardon. There is nothing to forgive, because it isn’t a crime to have sworn loyalty to our country,” said Bernardita Huerta, a member of the movement and the daughter of deceased navy admiral Ismael Huerta, Pinochet’s first foreign minister and later Chilean ambassador to the United Nations, where he denied that his country’s military was abducting and disappearing opponents.

“All of our political prisoners should be freed and the legal cases against the rest dropped," she added. "And if they want to put anyone on trial, then let them be judged by someone who isn’t a Marxist.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the length of Manuel Contreras' sentences.