Chile weighs where to put convict soldiers

March 03, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

SANTIAGO, Chile -- One is a lieutenant who set two teen-agers on fire, killing the boy and disfiguring the girl. Two more military men beat and tortured an activist to death, and then claimed he died after a "nervous crisis."

The three are the first people to run out of appeals after having been convicted of atrocities under Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1989 martial rule.

While few other countries would find this cause for a political crisis, President Eduardo Frei's bid to build a high-security jail to segregate military killers and torturers has led to shouting in the halls of the Chamber of Deputies and to one minister's attempt to resign.

For many, the conflict is a test of Chile's democratic transition. Mr. Frei's plan to dedicate a civilian-run jail for military criminals is an unprecedented step for the region. His supporters call it the only way to get the armed forces to bow to civil jurisdiction.

Until now, military brass have argued that their men wouldn't be safe among common criminals, while the convicts have waited out their appeals in freedom, or in military hospitals or guest houses.

Yet critics say a separate jail would constitute unacceptable special treatment for criminals who have evaded justice too long.

"It's not justified in any case," says leading human rights lawyer Hector Salazar. "The only explanation is that the armed forces pressured the government, and the government abdicated."

Both sides agree that Chile's political maturity may ultimately be measured by whether any human rights offender ends up in a civilian jail. Despite continuing anguish over the 2,685 civilians killed under the Pinochet regime, the 79-year-old general remains commander of the armed forces.

"What's at stake is whether the black history of the dictatorship is confirmed," said a Defense Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If no one goes to jail, our transition stays as a question mark and our youth will think us incapable of achieving justice."

The official's arguments for the special prison were rare inside Santiago's vast, bunkerlike Defense Ministry, yet are shared widely among civilian leaders.

"This is the opposite of giving the military criminals a privilege," said Justice Undersecretary Eduardo Jara. "They have lived in luxury until now. We just want them to have equal treatment as ordinary criminals."

The first suggestion of a special prison came from the military, during a series of high-level meetings in mid-1993.

An amnesty worked out by General Pinochet for political crimes committed in 1973-1978 had sharply cut the number of possible prosecutions. But with at least 40 cases still active, Chilean courts growing more independent and public pressure increasing to send some human rights offenders to jail, military officials realized that some offenders might have to serve time.

At first, Mr. Frei tried to launch the new prison by decree, but that led his public works minister, Socialist Party leader Ricardo Lagos, to resign in protest.

Mr. Lagos was persuaded to back down, after Mr. Frei agreed to send the proposal to the Chamber of Deputies.

Legislators passed the bill in January, as 200 friends and relatives of victims of General Pinochet's security forces yelled, "Murderers, liars, bastards!"

Plans are to build the jail by May, somewhere in the Santiago area, with room for up to 80 inmates, according to Mr. Jara. While he said he hoped Gen. Manuel Contreras would be its first inmate, he acknowledged it's more likely the lower-ranking officers will precede him.

All three face short terms.

For the 1986 burning of the two student protesters -- Rodrigo Rojas was killed and Carmen Quintana's face was disfigured -- former Lt. Pedro Fernandez Dittus faces a 600-day sentence for a crime amounting to negligence, according to Mr. Salazar, the human rights lawyer.

In the 1984 beating death of Christian Democrat Party activist Mario Fernandez Lopez, former security forces agents Maj. Carlos Herrera Jimenez and Armando Cabrera Aguilar may be confined less than four years.

As for Contreras and Gen. Pedro Espinoza, an aide implicated with him in the murder of Orlando Letelier, sentencing is still unresolved and they are free. Letelier, who had been foreign minister under ousted leftist President Salvador Allende, was blown up by a car bomb in Washington, D.C., in 1976.

A Supreme Court panel is expected to rule on their case, and possibly decide their sentences, by early April.

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