Chile: Amnesty law keeps Pinochet’s legacy alive

By Guadalupe Marengo, Americas Deputy Director at Amnesty International @GuadaMarengo

"Many of them have died waiting for justice. Many have died in silence. We've had enough of painful waiting and unjustified silences. This is the time to join together in the search for truth."
With those words, exactly a year ago today, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet marked the 41st anniversary of the 1973 coup d’etat in which a defiant Augusto Pinochet took power by force. More than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared and more than 38,000 arbitrarily detained and tortured during the 17 years of military regime that followed.

Bachelet’s government also promised to declare the Amnesty Law null, a decree passed by the Pinochet regime in 1978 to shield those suspected of committing human rights violations between 11 September 1973 and 10 March 1978 from facing the courts.

It was more than a well-received announcement. The world watched as Chile was finally confronting its dark past and taking action to get rid of one of the last traces of Pinochet’s brutality.

But a year has passed and the Amnesty Law is still being debated in parliament. Its future is anyone’s guess.

The law sparks fierce debate in Chile, with many arguing it is nothing but a piece of legislation that hasn’t been used for many years.

They are partly right.

In 1998 Chile’s Supreme Court ruled that the law should not apply to cases of human rights violations. This brave decision allowed for crucial investigations to move forward.

Since then, we have seen the tide turning in favor of more investigations into the systematic arbitrary detentions, torture, extra judicial executions and enforced disappearances that took place under Pinochet’s command– more than in the last nearly two decades combined.

Around 1,000 cases, 72 relating to allegations of torture, are active, according to data from the country’s Supreme Court from 2014.

By October last year, 279 people had been found guilty in trials before ordinary civilian courts in connection with these crimes, and 75 were serving prison sentences.

In May 2014, 75 former agents of Pinochet’s secret police (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, DINA) were sentenced to between 13 and 14 years in prison in connection with the enforced disappearance of student Jorge Grez Aburto in 1974.

Other members of the DINA, including its former head Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda, were sentenced last October to 15 years in prison for the enforced disappearance of Carlos Guerrero Gutiérrez and Claudio Guerrero Hernández, in 1974 and 1975 respectively. Contreras died facing more than 500 years in prison for his responsibility in human rights violations committed during the Pinochet years.

And on 16 August, Chile’s Supreme Court announced the prosecution of 15 members of Pinochet’s secret police for the killing of Spanish diplomat Carmelo Soria Espinoza in 1976. This ruling marked a U-turn on an earlier decision to archive the case, as it fell under the scope of crimes protected by the Amnesty law.

So, if it’s not being used, why is it important to get rid of it?

Arguing that the debate around the Amnesty law is irrelevant because the legislation is not currently used is like saying that it is not necessary for torture and disappearances to be banned by law.

We know that this is not the case.

The fact is that the Amnesty law is still valid.  It was for many years a shameful wall behind which torturers and murderers were able to hide. Its existence, sends the message that Chile is not yet ready to fully break free from its darkest years and fight impunity.

This archaic decree is a shocking reminder of Pinochet’s tragic legacy, one that has no place in a country that claims to stand for justice and human rights. Further, it is an affront to victims who are still desperate for answers, and justice.

Since president Bachelet re opened the case for abolishing the Amnesty law, there has been a glimpse of hope to definitely bury a piece of legislation designed only to protect criminals. This, alongside progress on other important announcements made by Bachelet’s government such as enacting the crime of torture in national laws, are necessary steps towards justice.

Declaring the Amnesty Law void would force Chile to come face-to-face with its troubled past and finally send the message that the abuses of the Pinochet era will not be tolerated again.

This oped was originally published in IPS