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Declarations & Statements


The New York Times, 21.3.00

Editorial Observer : Searching for Justice in Chile and Argentina. By TINA ROSENBERG

Until 16 months ago, it appeared that Chile had come to terms with the crimes of the Pinochet years. The murders, torture and forced disappearances, most of which took place in the mid-1970's, had faded from public attention. Not much was happening in the courts. But on Oct. 16, 1998, Gen. Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London on charges issued in Spain, and the illusion of Chile's reconciliation abruptly ended.

Although General Pinochet will not face trial in Spain, today dozens of his high-ranking military officers have been arrested in Chile on charges of murder, kidnapping or torture. A judge is investigating 60 accusations of Mr. Pinochet's involvement in these crimes. Questions of justice, healing and the fate of the disappeared are once again gripping society. It is now apparent that Chile's silence about the past was due to fear, pressure from a civilian government anxious to keep the generals happy, and the sense that no justice was possible. The emotion uncorked by Mr. Pinochet's arrest about events that took place a quarter-century ago shows the necessity of a reckoning with these crimes. Time alone, it seems, will not free a society from the grip of the past.

Chile's treatment of Pinochet-era crimes has been limited by the government's reluctance to provoke any insubordination from a still-powerful military. The civilian government set up a truth commission, but the armed forces did not cooperate, and to this day refuse to acknowledge that there was a policy of killings or provide information about the fate of the disappeared. Except for a handful of cases there were no trials, and courts respected an amnesty that General Pinochet issued for crimes committed before 1978.

Even today, anti-Pinochet politicians are still eager to grant him a peaceful retirement. Although Chile argued to Britain that Mr. Pinochet should face justice at home, the government and Congress supported a constitutional amendment allowing him to keep senatorial immunity even if he gives up his Senate seat. The amendment goes to a final vote on Saturday. The new president, Ricardo Lagos, should start his term by vetoing this cynical proposal. Most Chileans, according to polls, would like to see Mr. Pinochet tried. So many torture victims have sought treatment since his arrest that organizations that offer counseling are inundated.

To a lesser extent, judicial investigations abroad are also finding their echo in Argentina. Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge who indicted Mr. Pinochet, is investigating several Argentine military leaders for crimes during the "Dirty War" era, in the mid-1970's. That has helped inspire an Argentine judge to order the arrest of several members of the Dirty War juntas, including two former heads of state, for the kidnapping and illegal adoption of babies born to prisoners who were later murdered.

After the dictatorships fell in 1983, Argentina convicted five junta leaders of murder, torture and other crimes. But a series of military rebellions frightened the civilian governments into issuing amnesties and, in 1990, pardoning the junta members still in prison. Even today, however, the outraged families of victims pursue justice and information about the missing. Mothers of the disappeared still march, and an organization of the children of the missing is active nationwide. Another group, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has located 76 of the babies taken from prisoners. The grandmothers' efforts led to numerous trials of low-level baby-snatchers -- a crime not covered by amnesties or pardons -- and made possible the trials of junta members today.

The soldiers who killed and tortured, and the civilian governments who later chose silence over justice, little imagined that decades later the crimes would still roil their nations. One reason Chileans and Argentines are seeing justice today is the presence of a new generation of judges who owe nothing to the generals. In addition, most of the victims were urban, middle-class political activists. Those who survived torture, and families of the dead and disappeared, have the time and political skills to pursue their crusade.

The other reason that time has not brought silence is that many of those who were killed simply disappeared. Their bodies were never found, and every family still lives, even after 25 years, with a flicker of hope that the missing son will someday walk through the front door. They cannot move on. As the past year has shown, nor can a society truly bury the past while the bones are missing, the killers free and the dead unmourned.

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