Chile Culture — 16 September 2016

chile girl stands down police

Note: The photo above taken by Reuters photographer Carlos Vera Mancilla went viral.  It shows a girl staring into the face of a policeman. It was taken at the protest this week honoring victims of the dictatorship.

by

Cameron Ridgway

Chile’s democracy is continuing to wrestle with the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship.

The Legacy of Pinochet

Augusto Pinochet came to power in the 11th September 1973 coup that deposed President Salvador Allende. He ruled Chile as dictator between 1973 and 1990 and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces until 1998.

During this time, Chile’s military and police forces were accused of large scale human rights violations in attempts to hold onto power.

By the end of the dictatorship more than 40,000 people had been victims of torture and kidnapping and over 3,000 had been murdered. Around 1,000 of these murder victims are still unaccounted for.

Modern Day Retribution

As reported by BBC Mundo, seven former Pinochet era military officials were recently sentenced to time in prison by a high court judge, convicted of human rights abuses ranging from torture and kidnapping to murder.

Of the seven sentenced in August, Sergio Benavides (a former army colonel) and Manuel Vega (a former police chief), were sentenced to life imprisonment. A further four officials were sentenced to fifteen years behind bars and one other received a sentence of ten years and one day.

These sentences come at a sensitive time for Chile in light of the recent commemoration of the 43rd anniversary of the coup. An official commemoration was held on September 11th outside the Moneda Palace in Santiago, the presidential seat of power and site of the coup.

Groups supporting the families of the ‘disappeared’ protested outside the ceremony, criticizing the annual ‘celebration’ and demanding greater recognition of the atrocities committed. These demonstrations later turned violent as they marched toward one of Santiago’s main cemeteries.

Human Rights

The issue of human rights has also recently become more prominent in Chilean politics, with appointment of Lorena Fries to the new cabinet position of Subsecretary for Human Rights. A government spokesperson described the role’s goal as searching for justice among the ‘permanent challenges’ posed by Chile’s history.

In practice, this is likely to mean an intensification of efforts to end the ‘pacts of silence’ that many human rights organisations say exist between many former Pinochet officials to prevent their prosecution.

A number of these organizations have recently intensified their investigation into Chile’s ‘disappeared’. Salvador Allende’s daughter, Senator Isabel Allende, recently warned that there was still ‘much more walking’ to be done if justice was ever to be achieved.

A Lavish Punishment?

When convicted, there has been harsh criticism of the generous treatment afforded to prisoners convicted of charges against the regime. While many of these men are now aged 60 or older and increasingly frail, the Punta Peuco prison where many of them are held has been accused of treating them favourably and offering them additional benefits not afforded to other prisoners. It has a tennis court and satellite TV.

The Chilean government, however, recently reaffirmed its view that the treatment of Punta Peuco inmates was the same as in ‘any other jail’ in the country. The Chilean Defence Minister refuted protesters’ calls for its closure, claiming any preferential treatment of prisoners which may have happened in the past has long since ended.

With increasing public interest as more evidence of police, military and political activity during Pinochet era is uncovered, both further prosecutions and demonstrations seem increasingly likely.

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