A moral payback

December 06, 2004

SOMETHING UNUSUAL happened in Chile last week. The government acknowledged, in gruesome detail, the country's history of political torture, admitted torture was once official state policy and promised to compensate the victims.

It was a striking reversal after years of denials by past governments and military leaders that any abuse ever took place.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos spoke on national television of "the magnitude of the suffering, the insanity of the intense cruelty, the immensity of the pain" detailed in a report issued by a commission he appointed last year. The 1,200-page report is a collective diary of 35,000 tortured people, victims of former dictator Augusto Pinochet's military government from 1973 to 1990. It lists beatings, rapes, electric shock and mock executions, among other abuses.

"How does one explain such horror?" asked Mr. Lagos. "I have no answer."

For all its painful recollections, the report is a useful tool for reflection for future Chilean leaders, a signpost of the country's horrid human rights record and a caution against repeating such atrocities. It should be a model for other countries throughout Latin and South America struggling to reconcile blood-soaked pasts riddled with disappearances, paramilitary killings and all nature of inhumanity.

Nearly all the 3,400 Chilean women who testified said they were sexually abused. More than 300 said they were raped, including 11 who were pregnant, according to Human Rights Watch, which called the report a "moral recognition" of the victims.

Though the compensation payments will be minimal - only about $190 a month - the symbolic value is priceless. The victims also will get health, education and housing benefits. While no payment can erase their pain, it is a bit of payback against General Pinochet himself. Too bad the money is not coming from his pockets. When the 89-year old despot goes before a judge next month, we hope he is deemed mentally fit to face trial for the murders of 19 political dissidents in the 1970s - and does prison time.

All in all, November was a good month for Chilean democracy. Seven members of an indigenous community involved in land conflicts were acquitted after being charged under Pinochet-era counterterrorism laws designed to silence political opposition. And the country's Supreme Court upheld the prison sentences of a general and four military officers for the disappearance of a 26-year-old tailor in 1975.

President Lagos said the commission's report "should heal the wounds, not reopen them." At the least, it should warn dictators and military juntas everywhere that no matter how many opponents they maim or kill, there will be witnesses to testify later, to seek justice for themselves and those permanently silenced, and to demand, as President Lagos said, that such actions occur "nunca mas" - never again.

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