Last 16th October, it was 20 years since Augusto Pinochet was arrested at The Clinic, London, where he had travelled to undergo a surgical procedure. A milestone of global importance, which stemmed from an arrest warrant for genocide and crimes against humanity issued by the Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzón based on the principle of universal jurisdiction that recognizes that such crimes affect all human beings throughout the world and that, if it is not possible to judge them in the countries where they were committed, the other States have an obligation to investigate and punish them, and prevent impunity. Chile appeared to the world as a country which was unable to prosecute the dictator. Pinochet was under arrest in the United Kingdom for 503 days.
In Chile, the Supreme Court of Justice did not adjudicate on any relevant case during the dictatorship or during the two democratic governments that followed relying on the Amnesty Decree-Law passed by the dictatorship. However, Pinochet’s arrest triggered some positive changes that the country had been postponing against the backdrop of a democracy which was strongly guided by the military power and the right.
Surprising as it may seem, until that moment, the language used by the authorities and the media was not explicit, but tried to “give certain nuances” that created another reality. For example, the wording “excesses of the military government” was used when referring to the human rights’ abuses by the dictatorship or “military uprising” was used instead of coup d’état.
Six days after Pinochet’s shameful return to Chile, in March 2000, Judge Juan Guzmán requested the withdrawal of his immunity and began to investigate his responsibility in the crimes of the so-called “Caravan of Death”. Furthermore, the Supreme Court of Justice ceased to apply the Amnesty Decree-Law and took jurisdiction over proceedings that were previously under the scope of military justice. For approximately five years, severe penalties were applied in line with the gravity of these crimes. However, after Pinochet’s death, the Supreme Court entered a new phase and started imposing derisory penalties using the “half prescription” provision: three to five year sentences, in their vast majority consisting in probation. Thus, stealing a bicycle could get a much higher penalty than having participated in enforced disappearances, executions or tortures.
Despite having opened 1328 criminal proceedings for crimes against humanity (data from September 2017), there are only close to 150 imprisoned officers. Among those, there are some cases where they have been granted probation or where their sentence has been conditionally remitted thus violating the principles enshrined in the Rome Statute. However, the most recent case-law of the Supreme Court has gradually abandoned the application of the “half prescription” with regard to certain crimes.Undoubtedly, many challenges still remain in matters of truth and justice and today, with Sebastián Piñera’s second government, we are facing again the challenge of acknowledging the truth of recent historical events (denialism) and a new distortion through language.
Today, a part of the opposition to the new right-wing government is promoting a law to penalize denialism and a fierce debate is expected in the country in this regard.
Unlike during his first government, when he condemned the “passive accomplices of the dictatorship”, President Piñera is currently referring to the “military government” and has caricatured Allende’s image and government claiming that he “promoted the use of violence”, that “democracy was sick” or that “supporting the military government is neither sin nor crime”. Besides verbal aggression, last August he appointed as Minister of Culture a person who had stated in a book that the Museum of Memory and Human Rights was a “setup orchestrated by the left in order to prevent people from thinking”. Under pressure from civil society, he was removed from office within 48 hours.
One of the first measures taken by Piñera a few weeks after the beginning of his second government was withdrawing from Congress a draft law of Michelle Bachelet’s government which granted financial compensation equaling 4500 dollars to more than 30 thousand people who have been victims of imprisonment and torture. In that context, a parliamentarian from the governing coalition labelled survivor-victims of the dictatorship “terrorists with a Christmas bonus”.
Today, a part of the opposition to the new right-wing government is promoting a law to penalize denialism and a fierce debate is expected in the country in this regard. The challenge for the center-left is to fight impunity, make progress in a number of outstanding issues related to truth and justice, but also to put an end to discrimination against sexual minorities, the Mapuche people and other indigenous peoples, migrants and women. We want to build a society with a solid foundation of unwavering respect for human rights, unambiguously, without euphemisms, and contributing to the development of universal jurisdiction.