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Chile's Leader Presses Rights Issues Softly but Successfully

By Larry Rohter

The New York Times
September 7, 2003

SANTIAGO, Chile, Sept. 6 — After several years of uncomfortable silence, the question of how to redress the human rights abuses of this country's violent past is once again on the public agenda. President Ricardo Lagos, the courts, opposition parties and even the military are searching for ways to achieve the reconciliation they all say they want.

The Socialist-led government has announced a plan that would force wrongdoers in the armed forces to account for their actions in the courts. But in an acknowledgment of political realities, it has shied away from demands by some rights groups, hunger strikers and other protesters that it seek to overturn an amnesty law imposed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet 25 years ago.

"Since the return of democracy in 1990, there have been three big pushes" to resolve the human rights issue, one by each of the governments that has taken power, said José Zalaquett, co-director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Chile. The Lagos administration has taken the most extensive action, he said, but the government remains haunted by the fear that "you can still lose the vote in Congress, and then you're done."

Some of the impetus to bring the issue forward has to do with Chilean history. Sept. 11 will be the 30th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the leftist government of Salvador Allende. Relatives of the estimated 4,000 people killed or missing then or afterward have seized the occasion to press the government and stir public opinion.

But events in Argentina have also had an effect here. Since taking office in May, President Néstor Kirchner has removed generals linked to rights abuses, successfully pushed Congress to revoke a pair of unpopular amnesty laws and lifted a ban on the extradition of rights abusers for trial abroad, leading to the detention of 40 of the worst offenders.

"Kirchner shows that when the political will to act exists, many things can be done," said Lorena Pizarro, president of the Group of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared. "That is exactly what we need here and do not have."

Other analysts say the government is working quietly to pursue rights abusers and has made much progress. "Lagos's approach is softly, softly, the very soul of discretion, but it seems to be working," said Sebastian Brett, the local representative of Human Rights Watch.

For example, judges appointed exclusively to investigate human rights cases have opened proceedings against more than 300 military officers, including 22 generals, who are accused of abuses during the Pinochet years. "To a large extent, judges are ignoring the amnesty law for the purposes of investigation," Mr. Zalaquett said, and no court has applied the amnesty law since Mr. Lagos took office three years ago.

The amnesty law was meant to be all-inclusive. But in recent years, especially since General Pinochet was detained in Britain in 1998, judges have ruled that it does not apply to "continuing crimes" like unsolved cases of forced disappearance.

Last month, Nelson Mery, the director of the national investigative police, was forced to step down after a former prisoner accused him of having sexually abused her while she was detained during the Pinochet era. The woman also said that he had been present while other prisoners were tortured. An investigation seeking to indict him is under way.

In addition, a general from the Pinochet secret police, known as DINA, and one of his operatives are being held on charges that they took part in the 1974 assassination in Buenos Aires of Carlos Prats, General Pinochet's predecessor as chief of the armed forces. Argentina has asked for their extradition, but the Chilean judges have indicated a preference that they be tried here.

The current military leadership, eager to improve the image of the armed forces, has also been working behind the scenes to resolve outstanding scores. Last month, eight high-ranking retired generals signed a letter, reportedly orchestrated by the current army commander, Gen. Emilio Cheyre, in which they acknowledged that they had exhumed and then hidden the bodies of political prisoners during the Pinochet era. They apologized for "the pain these actions have produced."

Mr. Lagos's comprehensive new human rights proposal, announced last month, is expected to be submitted to Congress next month. It calls for more judges to investigate rights cases and for increased efforts to recover and identify bodies of victims from the Pinochet era, but its main feature is a calibrated, carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with human rights offenders.

Under the plan, low-ranking military or civilian officials who come forward with information about instances in which people disappeared or were tortured or executed and who describe their role in such cases can be granted immunity from prosecution. The sentences of some higher-ranking offenders could be reduced in return for such testimony, but it is intended to build criminal cases against the top brass of the military and intelligence apparatus who gave orders to kill and torture.

The proposal has divided human rights groups and victims' groups. The relatives' group and some left-wing parties have denounced the Lagos plan as a means for "expanding impunity," but other organizations regard it as offering the best prospects for forcing the guilty to account for their actions.

"There is a difference between impunity and immunity, and so long as this proposal maintains that distinction, it constitutes an advance," said Pamela Pereira, a lawyer for the Prats family and for a daughter of one of the people who disappeared. "The courts are where responsibility for human rights abuses should be established, and this plan adheres to that logic."

Mr. Lagos has also offered to increase the reparations paid to victims' families by 50 percent, to about $700 a month. But Ms. Pizarro criticized the offer, saying, "We don't want just economic reparations, we want justice too."

At a news conference here this week, Mr. Lagos said Chileans must recognize that there are limits to what government can do. The plan is "a step forward," he said, but "this chapter can never be closed."

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