24 may 2006
A Few Blemishes on Overall Strong Record
by Daniela Estrada.

SANTIAGO, May 24 (IPS) - Although Chile made progress in human rights in 2005, according to Amnesty International's annual report, the head of the organisation's local chapter commented to IPS Wednesday that there are still critical situations involving amnesty laws and the rights of indigenous people.

The Chilean branch of the London-based Amnesty also pointed to "contradictory signals" from the executive and judicial branches, and especially criticised the continued application of controversial amnesty and anti-terrorism laws decreed by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

"In general, we can say that substantial steps have been taken (in terms of human rights in Chile), and we have not seen setbacks, although there have been contradictory signals," Lorena Leiva, president of Amnesty International Chile, told IPS. One of these is the continued existence of the amnesty law, which is "an impediment to achieving truth, justice and reparations for the victims of human rights violations" committed by the de facto regime, she noted.

Most recently, the law benefited six members of the military facing legal prosecution when it was invoked this month by Judge Víctor Montiglio in the case involving the "caravan of death" -- a special army mission created shortly after the 1973 coup d'etat to "expedite" the "trials" and executions of political prisoners around the country. Leiva also criticised last year's Supreme Court ruling that set a six-month time limit for investigating forced disappearances and other human rights violations committed by the military regime. However, the decision was suspended, allowing investigations to continue in at least 150 cases.

According to a 1991 truth commission report, 3,000 people were killed or "disappeared" by the dictatorship. Former Chilean president Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), meanwhile, told IPS that he is opposed to the application of the anti-terrorism law in cases involving members of the Mapuche indigenous community, because it stipulates severe sentences.

Aylwin took part Tuesday evening in the presentation in Santiago of the Amnesty International annual report on human rights worldwide for 2005, which said the global war on terror is undermining human rights and hurting the world's poor.

Chile's anti-terrorism law was invoked by the Interior Ministry in the case of three Mapuche men and a non-indigenous activist who were sentenced in 2001 to 10 years in prison on "terrorist arson" charges.

The four, who began a hunger strike on Mar. 13, have consistently denied any involvement in a fire that destroyed 100 hectares of a pine plantation on the Mininco forestry company's Poluco Pidenco estate, near Temuco in the southern region of Araucanía.

The four are demanding their immediate release, and that the verdict be overturned.

After a one-week recess, they resumed their fast on May 20 in the Temuco prison, 670 km south of Santiago, arguing that conditions that they had agreed with the centre-left government of Michelle Bachelet were not fulfilled.

Leiva also pointed to the scandal that was triggered this month by the government's acknowledgement that errors were committed in the identification of the remains of 48 victims of forced disappearance. The bodies had been exhumed in 1991 in the General Cemetery in the Chilean capital.

The Amnesty report, which assessed the state of human rights in 150 countries, pointed to positive developments in Chile in the past year, like the prosecution and house arrest of Pinochet for human rights abuses, and the extradition from Argentina and prosecution of former Nazi medic Paul Schäfer, the founder of Colonia Dignidad, an agricultural commune of German immigrants in southern Chile.

Schäfer and other leaders of the secretive enclave are being tried on charges of child sex abuse and other human rights violations, as well as possession of weapons.

Amnesty also praised the report produced by the National Commission on Political Prisoners and Torture, created in 2003 by then president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), which documented 27,000 cases of torture under the dictatorship.

It also highlighted the Chilean Navy's admission that torture was committed on one of its training ships, the Esmeralda, during the Pinochet regime.

In addition, it applauded the November 2005 arrest in Santiago of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) after he unexpectedly flew to Chile.
Fujimori is wanted for extradition by Peru on numerous corruption and human rights charges. But on May 18, the Supreme Court ruled that he was to be released on bail until a decision on his extradition is handed down.

"Amnesty International believes the judiciary has sent out a quite contradictory signal by granting Fujimori conditional release, given the risks involved. With this decision, something that was strictly limited to the judicial arena has moved into the political sphere, and the government has had to set limits," said Leiva. The activist was alluding to Bachelet's request Tuesday that the Supreme Court take measures to prevent Fujimori from making political statements, which the president said were affecting relations between Peru and Chile. After his release, Fujimori told the press that he was the victim of "political persecution" from his country, and once again denied all of the charges against him.

The local chapter of Amnesty is promoting a Human Rights Agenda, with an eye to the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Chilean independence, in 2010.

"Chile would like to be a developed country, but development cannot be achieved without real awareness of human rights, and that means clear commitments on the part of Chilean society and the state," said Leiva. One of the commitments that the activist called for is ratification of all of the international treaties on human rights, especially those that focus on the most vulnerable groups in Chile, like indigenous people - who make up 4.6 percent of the population - sexual minorities, the disabled and women.

She was specifically referring to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, and the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court. Leiva also called for improvements in the country's prison system. According to Amnesty's annual report, inmates in Chile continue to suffer from overcrowding, a lack of medical attention, poor sanitary conditions and inadequate infrastructure. "At this time, the creation of a Ministry of Public Security is being discussed, and the necessary consultations are being made," said the activist. "We hope to be able to contribute to prison security from a human rights perspective, which we are unable to do today." (END/2006)