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Augusto Pinochet, Former Chilean President Is Indicted for Humanitarian Abuses

December 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the Chile story. Today attorneys for former President Pinochet told an appeals court he is too ill to stand trial for kidnapping and murder.

Elizabeth Farnsworth has been following his case for an independent documentary. Here is part two of her report for us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chilean Juan Guzman’s indictment of former dictator Augusto Pinochet Monday was the latest in a series of dramatic breakthroughs in that country’s pursuit of justice for past crimes.

In September, Guzman and police detectives watched from a boat as divers brought up pieces of iron rails from under the Pacific Ocean just off Chile’s central coast.

Judges here investigate and prosecute, as well as try cases. Guzman had evidence that the rails were tied to bodies of political prisoners tortured and killed in the 1970s and then dropped from helicopters into the sea.

It’s one of many crimes Guzman has been investigating since 1998, when he was assigned the first criminal case against Pinochet.

The discovery of the rails, which was front-page news, was deeply upsetting to these women, who are plaintiffs in one of Judge Guzman’s cases.

Their children are part of a group known in Chile as “The Disappeared,” the nearly 1,000 victims of the Pinochet years whose bodies have never been found.

Edita Salvadores de Castro was arrested with her husband in 1974 by security officials looking for her daughter and son-in-law.

They had been members of a far-left group called the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, or MIR.

EDITA SALVADORES DE CASTRO (Translated): They threatened me, saying that if we didn’t tell them where my daughter, Chechi, and Juan Carlos were — Chechi is what we called my daughter– they would kill my 22-month-old granddaughter.

She was staying with us that night. We knew that they had the MIR surrounded, and we had to save the little girl.

If we didn’t, Chechi would never forgive us for as long as she lived because she had told me, “Mama, my daughter is for you.You raise her if something happens to me and Carlos.”

So we took the police to where my daughter was, and they detained Carlos and Chechi right in front of us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Edita never saw either one of them again.

The most recent evidence indicates they were among those tied to rails and dropped into the sea.

Other investigative breakthroughs have come from an official commission on torture which established offices around the country to collect information from all those who survived imprisonment and torture under Pinochet.

Many of the people who came to testify had never told their stories before.

NINA REYES GUZMAN (Translated): In prison they always mistreated us, beat us. They would move us from one place to another and ask about what we were doing.

I lost all the hearing in this ear, and they used electric current on me. I was pregnant at that time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Last month, the torture commission presented its report to Chilean President Ricardo Lagos.

Nearly 36,000 people testified, and of those, 28,000 were determined to have been tortured by security forces in methods ranging from asphyxiation to burns.

In a prologue to the torture commission report, President Lagos wrote: “How can we explain such horror? What could provoke human conduct like that described here…How can we explain that 94 percent of people who were taken prisoner suffered torture? How can we explain that of the 3,400 women who testified, almost all were raped?”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Also last month, Chilean Army Commander Juan Emilio Cheyre acknowledged in a statement that the army bears responsibility as an institution for what he called the “punishable and morally unacceptable acts of the past.”

The divisions of the Cold War did not justify what was done, he said, because “there can never be ethical justifications for the violations of anyone’s human rights.”

President Ricardo Lagos said he is proud of how far Chile has gone.

PRESIDENT RICARDO LAGOS (Translated): How many countries have dared to look into their history so deeply? We are a solid country, stable, and we can do it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Augusto Pinochet, who turned 89 last month, continues to claim he didn’t know about torture and killings during his rule.

But human rights attorney Jose Zalaquett says the avalanche of new information from the past has left the former dictator increasingly isolated.

JOSE ZALAQUETT: The new generation of military people, they still go to see him to the hospital, and they look respectful enough, but they are not going to really put a strong defense of him or threaten anything.

And his political supporters, except for a few, they are not going either to make a big stance in favor of him. So he is all by himself, except for a cadre of the faithful.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This isolation has been exacerbated, Zalaquett says, by recent revelations in the New York Times and elsewhere about accounts worth millions of dollars hidden by Pinochet with the alleged connivance of the Washington DC-based Riggs Bank.

The information has been surfacing for months as part of a U.S. investigation into money laundering by the bank.

JOSE ZALAQUETT: For some people it is worse that he stole money than that he killed people.

Because they see that, well, if you are in a war, maybe you have to do unsavory things to save the country. But to steal money, that’s outright dishonest.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: These files in a Catholic Church library in Santiago offer one explanation for why Chile has gotten so far in its pursuit of justice.

Compiled after the 1973 coup by courageous lawyers, journalists and relatives of those taken prisoner, the files hold a record of each of the more than 3,000 people killed during Pinochet’s rule.

American journalist John Dinges reported from Chile for the Washington Post in that period.

JOHN DINGES: You have a system in Chile that I don’t believe ever existed in any other country where while the dictatorship was in its strongest period, there were people putting together files.

If you’ve looked at those files, they are amazingly complete, including a classification system so that they can reveal parts of the information without compromising the sources.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The files include testimony from eyewitnesses, habeas corpus petitions, almost always turned down by the courts, and other important documents that assure that current trials have contemporaneous evidence and don’t rely only on faulty memories.

John Dinges was in Chile last month for the publication of the Spanish edition of his book about Judge Guzman’s Condor case.

Dinges calls the people who compiled the files and pursued multiple investigations “pursuers.”

JOHN DINGES: They were pursuing the human rights criminals even during the time when it was impossible to do anything about it.

They were building the edifice that now will become the prison for the generals.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So far about 322 agents of the Pinochet-era security forces have been charged with crimes related to the repression.

Around 40 are in prison, some of them here at Punta Peuco, which is being expanded to receive the hundred or more expected to be sentenced soon.

Nelson Caucoto, who as a young lawyer helped compile the important case files, is proud of what has been accomplished over the years.

NELSON CAUCOTO (Translated): I simply have to be proud of my country. We’re opening a way to resolve in a civilized fashion problems that other countries haven’t been able to resolve.

We are beginning to be like countries in the developed world, where law is the only way to close old wounds, and we are doing it well.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But not well enough for mothers whose children may never be found.

MAGDALENA NAVARETTE (Translated): We’ll never know where our children are, even though they found the rails and it’s known that people were tied to them and thrown into the sea, there’s no trace left of our children.

It’s a profound sorrow not to have a place where we can in some way be reunited with them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Last weekend the rails brought up from the ocean were in the news again.

Chilean reporter Jorge Escalante revealed that experts working with Judge Guzman found tiny pieces of material and a button affixed to one of the rails.

Judge Guzman believes about 500 people disappeared this way.