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Torture victims seek reparations
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Activists demand sanctions for those responsible for human rights violations.

An estimated 500,000 people were tortured in Chile during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-90), but 12 years after the country’s return to democracy, impunity persists and the victims still have not received reparation.

The Ethical Commission against Torture, a group of 13 human rights organizations and various activists, is pushing for a law that would make legal, moral and material reparations to survivors of human rights abuses (LP, May 3, 1999).

The commission’s creation in March 2001 coincided with the 10th anniversary of the 1991 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which officially documented such crimes as forced disappearance and murder of political prisoners during the Pinochet dictatorship.

"This report left out other abuses, such as exile, limitations on movement and the torture that affected hundreds of thousands of people," said Claudio Escobar, one of the activists involved in the commission.

Torture has remained "unpunished and forgotten" in Chile, resulting in " an absolute lack of justice for torture victims," he added.

Physical and psychological abuse of prisoners to force them to confess and finger other prisoners was a key element of the strategy used by the military regime to neutralize opponents after the bloody coup of Sept. 11, 1973.

"In concentration camps and detention centers, torture became the centerpiece of the dictatorship’s repression. Forced disappearance and execution of prisoners were the result of actions that began with torture," Escobar said.

Very few torture cases have come to public attention and resulted in punishment for the torturers.

In February 2001, three former political prisoners denounced Gen. Hernán Gabrielli, who at the time was second in command of the Chilean Air Force, for allegedly torturing prisoners in 1973 in the Cerro Moreno military base in Antofagasta, 1,200 kilometers north of Santiago.

Carlos Bau, Héctor Vera and Juan Ruz accused Gabrielli of torturing Eugenio Ruiz-Tagle, an engineer who was killed in October 1973 in an operation known as the "Caravan of Death," in which 57 political prisoners were killed and 18 disappeared (LP, July 15, 2002).

Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza threw out the accusation against Gabrielli and told human rights organizations and victims’ families that only cases of murder or disappearance should be taken to court.

Gabrielli sued Bau, Vera and Ruz for slander, basing his case on the State Security Law, which granted special rights to military commanders and high-ranking public officials. In June 2001, however, a court threw out the case.

Last October, when the time came to name a new chief of the Air Force, President Ricardo Lagos passed over Gabrielli, forcing him into retirement.

Another case that has come to public attention is that of Emilio Meneses, a political scientist and former Navy officer who worked in the Institute of Political Sciences of the Catholic University in Santiago until March.

In a letter sent to the institute in March 2001, Felipe Agüero, a former political prisoner who is now director of graduate studies at the University of Miami in the United States, accused Meneses of having been a torturer.

Meneses denied the charges, although he admitted that in October 1973 he worked as an "interrogator" in the national stadium, which served as a detention center for political prisoners just after the coup.

In March, the Catholic University canceled his contract.

The two cases are among a handful of exceptions to the general impunity enjoyed by officers who tortured prisoners during the dictatorship. Although hundreds of cases have been filed, the courts have ignored them.

The Ethical Commission against Torture wants the government to recognize torture as "a crime that has been practiced on a massive scale in our country," Escobar said.

"In our view, the sense of moral reparation [for victims] and public recognition [of torture] will lay the groundwork for keeping this from happening again in our country, and, therefore, the beginning of its eradication," he added.

The commission proposes restoring all civil and political rights to all former political prisoners who are still under restrictions set by military or civilian courts on the basis of confessions obtained through torture. It also recommends that the government provide long-term medical and psychological treatment for torture victims.

The group seeks to have former torturers barred from any government job, including military and police posts. Activists are demanding that Chile fully apply the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment — which, ironically, was signed by Pinochet toward the end of the dictatorship.

Chile has yet to ratify a protocol to the convention that would allow monitors to visit to prisons and other detention centers to ensure that prisoners are not mistreated. — IPS

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