Chile: Marking 40 years since Pinochet coup

A photographer approaching police during one of the many protests against Pinochet's regime (courtesy of everystockphoto.com)

One of the many protests against Pinochet’s regime
(courtesy of everystockphoto.com)

When the heart attack came on 3 December 2006, Augusto Pinochet probably feared the worst. At 91-years-old he must have known this was the end of a controversial, turbulent life.

But what were his last thoughts as he lay in on his deathbed: regret, remorse, sorrow?

One hopes something was felt for the thousands of helpless Chileans who suffered from Pinochet’s brutal 17-year rule of the country.

Yet the fact still remains that the truth surrounding Pinochet and his rule was never discovered.

He died on the 10 December 2006 with over 300 crimes still against him, ranging from human rights abuses to embezzlement and tax violations.

Rather than celebrating his death or the passing of the oppressive regime, the Chilean people instead commemorate the 11 September each year – the date which, in 1973, saw Pinochet come to power via the violent military coup.

This year marks 40 years since the coup and is a special reminder about how far Chile has come as a nation and, perhaps, how far is still left to go.

A great divide

The rule of Pinochet is a topic which still splits some Chileans. The opposition to Pinochet use the 11 September anniversary to reflect upon the torture and inhumane treatment of up to 40,000 Chileans, and use the day as an opportunity to establish the truth from Pinochet’s dark regime.

According to former President and running presidential candidate for this years’ elections, Michelle Bachelet, the point of the 11 September anniversary to reopen the “painful wounds” of Chiles’ past, not to victimise people or governments, but “to get to know the truth.”

On the other hand there are people who, while agreeing with others in the denouncement of Pinochet’s reign, were once supporters of Pinochet and feel that the military coup was inevitable and any human rights violations were merely expansions upon the crimes committed by Pinochet’s predecessor, the left-wing President Salvador Allende – the world’s first democratically elected Marxist leader.

Whatever the political standing, everyone can acknowledge at least one truth – the human rights violations, which saw 3,000 Chileans simply disappear off the face of the earth and tens of thousands tortured, was one of the darkest periods of Chilean history.


Beyond the numbers

To date only 262 people have been sentenced for their part in the human rights violations of Pinochet’s regime. Over 1,000 judicial cases of human rights violations remain open today.

Pinochet (courtesy of © AFP/Getty Images)

Pinochet (courtesy of © AFP/Getty Images)

It has taken a lot of courage, honesty and investigation to even get to this point of human rights prosecutions. Many procedural changes from the state and justice systems have ensured that families affected by the torture have found justice.

But there is still a long road ahead.

While official figures state almost there were 40,000 victims of torture, detention and human rights abuses during Pinochet’s reign, experts believe that unofficially the number is much higher.

It takes continuous bravery for a torture survivor and their family or community to pursue justice. The crimes they know of may be too much to talk about – the details and sadness may just be too strong.

But survivors of torture, and their families, do talk. Thanks to limited positive cooperation from the Chilean judicial system, progress has been made with the transfer of some proceedings against human rights violators from private military courts to the civilian courts, which apply greater transparency and independence.

However, jurisdiction surrounding military crimes still applies to human rights violations committed by the state. The result is that justice is still needlessly difficult to achieve for many affected by torture and, if justice is pursued, it is often in private.

The future

The 40th anniversary gives Chileans an opportunity to show the world their progress post-Pinochet, to show every person who was perhaps skeptical of the country that Chile has evolved in ways once thought to be unimaginable.

More needs to be done to fully establish the truth surrounding Pinochet’s rule. For the past few months, Amnesty International has collected more than 25,000 signatures through an online petition calling for more open and accessible justice systems for torture victims, and for greater enforcement of human rights law in Chile.

It is a reminder that while the past is gone, dealing with this past properly is the only way to shape the future.

The reign of Pinochet is something which will not, unlike the victims of his regime, disappear any time soon.

On the 17 November the Chilean people will be reminded of the horrors of Pinochet once more, as they vote for their next President – the two candidates, Ms Bachelet and Ms Matthei, are daughters of two generals who suffered different fates under Pinochet’s rule.

As the BBC reports, Gen Alberto Bachelet was arrested, tortured and died in detention. Gen Fernando Matthei became a part of Gen Pinochet’s regime.

Pinochet may be gone but, for better or worse, he is certainly not forgotten.

AshleyEditor’s note: Ashley Scrace is a Communications Officer with the IRCT and writes from their office in Copenhagen, Denmark. He can be reached by email at asc@irct.org. You can also follow him on Twitter by going to @Ashleyscrace

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