HUMAN RIGHTS-CHILE: Unfinished Business

  • by Daniela Estrada (santiago)
  • Inter Press Service

Chile has implemented 'policies and initiatives that promote respect for human rights, but these are not yet incorporated into our daily life,' Lorena Fríes, the new head of the Institute for Human Rights (IDH), a government body created by law in December 2009, told IPS.

Over the past week, crimes against humanity committed under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of general Augusto Pinochet, who died in 2006, have returned to the spotlight because of the 'bicentennial pardon' proposed to rightwing President Piñera on Jul. 21 by the Catholic Bishop's Conference.

Protestant churches separately presented a similar request.

As Chile celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence this year, the local Catholic hierarchy has suggested reducing the sentences of or pardoning prisoners over 70, women inmates with dependent children, and prisoners who are terminally ill, as long as they have shown good behaviour and do not pose a danger to society.

After relatives of the victims of human rights violations committed by the dictatorship loudly protested the proposal because it could apply to elderly military officers who participated in the Pinochet regime, the bishops clarified that the measure would not apply to people convicted of crimes against humanity.

Piñera rejected the idea of a 'general pardon,' but agreed to consider prisoners on a 'case by case' basis. He ruled out clemency for military officers or others sentenced for serious crimes, a decision that was welcomed by different sectors, who called for transparency in the process.

During the dictatorship 3,000 people were killed or 'disappeared' and nearly 30,000 people were tortured. Some 600 members of the military are currently facing prosecution, and about 200 have been convicted. Of these, 65 are serving their sentences in prisons that offer certain privileges.

In spite of progress in this area, lawyers with the Interior Ministry's human rights programme, which has the power to bring legal action in cases involving forced disappearance or political killings, have criticised the Supreme Court's recent use of Chilean law on 'prescripción gradual' (partial lapse of a crime's statute of limitations) to reduce sentences imposed by lower court judges.

Under international law, crimes against humanity are not subject to any statute of limitations.

'This is an imposed form of transitional justice, in which the victims disproportionately bear the cost of reconciliation,' Karinna Fernández, a lawyer with the human rights programme, told correspondents from five international agencies, including IPS, Thursday.

(Transitional justice, after a period of systematic or widespread violations of human rights, like the Chilean dictatorship, seeks recognition for victims while promoting possibilities for peace, reconciliation and democracy.)

It also 'infringes on the international obligation to punish offenders' in proportion to their crimes, she said.

Fernández said there has been a setback in the search for justice in recent years. 'In 2006 and 2007, when sentences were just, prosecutions made good progress,' she said. 'Now, though, when those responsible are being released without effective punishment, the investigations are suffering.

'Any measure that undermines a conviction, like parole, conditional remission of sentence or a pardon, results in the convicted criminal withholding further information because he has nothing to gain,' she said. And this does not include the effects on those demanding justice, who are turned into victims once again, she added.

Fernández gave some examples: the former head of the Joint Command, retired general Enrique Ruiz Bunge, faced four sentences for murder, but has been released, and retired general Sergio Arellano Stark, sentenced for leading the 'caravan of death' -- a special army mission that summarily executed leftist political leaders arrested around the country after the 1973 coup -- 'is at home, being cared for by his son.'

And retired colonel Hugo Cardemil, convicted of 28 kidnappings and of the theft of a child, was only sentenced to four years in prison, she complained.

Fernández called on the rightwing government that took office Mar. 11 to make greater efforts to engage in dialogue with the 13 lawyers in the human rights programme, who were hired during the previous administrations of the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which governed Chile since its return to democracy in 1990.

Some officials appointed by Piñera criticised the lawyers' work, after they summoned former army commander-in-chief and present deputy defence minister, retired general Óscar Izurieta, and the present Chilean ambassador to Panama, Alberto Labbé, to testify in two court cases as witness and defendant, respectively.

During the debate over the pardons, the Chilean association of non-governmental organisations, ACCION, and the rights watchdog Amnesty International called again for the repeal of the 1978 amnesty law enacted by Pinochet, which barred the prosecution of those involved in certain crimes committed from the date of the coup d'etat, Sept. 11, 1973, to Mar. 10, 1978.

Although judges no longer apply the amnesty law in practice, it has never been struck down, in spite of an order to do so by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, the Ethics Commission Against Torture, formed by a group of organisations in 2001, reported Thursday that 'police brutality and the use of torture resulting in death have worsened.' In the last two years, according to allegations, four young men have died from beatings by police officers.

'Police today feel free to kill people, even in front of dozens of witnesses,' complained Susana Aguilar, the mother of Mario Oviedo, an architect who was killed in 2009, because the cases come under military tribunals, which act as both judge and jury.

'We want international treaties and resolutions on torture to be enforced, and an end to military court jurisdiction in civilian cases,' Hervi Lara, coordinator of the Ethics Commission, told IPS.

The challenge facing the new Institute of Human Rights, which has a mandate to propose legislation and policies, is 'to get everyone, authorities and citizens alike, to be governed by the same code of respect and guarantees for the rights of all,' Fríes, who assumed her post Jul. 20, told IPS.

In addition to dealing with the question of the abuses of the Pinochet dictatorship, the Institute will consider recommendations that international bodies have made to Chile, 'which are basically about not discriminating against groups like indigenous peoples, sexual minorities and women,' she said.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service