Spain pursues Pinochet on Soria killing

 

Chile has made an official protest to Britain over the arrest of the former dictator Gen Augusto Pinochet (83) at a London hospital. President Eduardo Frei claimed the senator was entitled to diplomatic immunity.

Gen Pinochet had been attending the London clinic for back surgery. The arrest came as a response to a request from Spain over the alleged murders of Spanish citizens in Chile by Gen Pinochet's secret police, DINA.

As far back as August 1996, the Spanish Judicial Service announced it would proceed with a case filed by Spain's Public Prosecutor Association (UFP) charging Chilean military officials with the disappearance of six Spanish citizens during the military dictatorship headed by Gen Pinochet from 1973 to 1990.

The charges noted that over 3,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and murdered during that period. UFP officials said at the time that these crimes could be considered terrorism and genocide and that they could be prosecuted in Spain because the accused had not been prosecuted in Chile.

Gen Pinochet's 1978 amnesty law precludes all investigation or prosecution of crimes committed by his security forces before that date. Equally binding is his 1980 constitution, which allowed him to appoint up to a quarter of the senate members, thus frustrating the efforts of the Concertacion government to initiate the reforms necessary to move Chile towards full democracy.

Two of the Spanish executed were priests and amongst the disappeared was an eight-months pregnant youth leader. The UN diplomat and Spanish citizen Mr Carmelo Soria was also tortured and murdered.

In December 1995, the Supreme Court in Santiago upheld the military court's decision to close the investigative phase of the 1976 murder of Mr Soria. Supreme Court Judge Eleodoro Ortiz ruled that the 1978 amnesty law was applicable in the Soria case and that he was not a beneficiary of diplomatic immunity at the time of his death. The court's ruling set the stage for the final determination of the applicability of the 1978 amnesty law.

The Spanish government had followed the Soria case closely, subtly pressurising the Chilean government by asking for justice for the murder of one of its citizens.

Mr Soria, then an employee of the UN agency Cepal, whose headquarters were in Santiago, was abducted by members of Gen Pinochet's secret police, DINA, in July 1976 and was found dead in a river canal days later.

Initial investigation into his death ended for the first time in 1979 when a criminal court ruled that his death was the result of an accident.

In 1991, however, new evidence brought about by the Rettig Commission for Truth and Reconciliation proved that Mr Soria died as the result of torture in the house of a DINA agent, Mr Michael Townley. Townley, a US citizen, now living in the US under its witness protection programme, corroborated this account of the death in a televised statement broadcast in Chile in 1994.

In an official statement following the August 23rd decision by Chile's Supreme Court, the Spanish Home Affairs Ministry said it felt "deeply disappointed" that charges against known DINA officials, indicted in 1995 for the crime, were dropped by the Supreme Court.

The Spanish authorities said that while they recognised the contribution the Chilean government made to reopening the case, they were "willing, with the reiterated support of the Spanish parliament, to promote the just outcome of this case in international tribunals. We will accompany the family of Carmelo Soria in the proceedings that follow."

The Spanish prime minister, Mr Jose Maria Aznar, sought a meeting with Chile's Foreign Minister, Mr Jose Insulza, and condemned the unwillingness of the Chilean government to confront the issue. A previous threat from Spain to break off diplomatic relations, at a time when Chile was pushing for closer relations with the EU, had forced the government of Mr Eduardo Frei to move the case from the military courts to the Supreme Court.

An editorial in the Spanish daily newspaper El Pais stated that "the prestige of Chilean democracy in the eyes of its own citizens, and before world opinion is not enhanced by this latest judicial vicissitude".

Mr Soria's daughter Carmen had also expressed her disappointment at the court's decision and stated: "We will recur to all the international courts. If Chile does not give us justice, then my father's country will have to do so; that would be a serious problem because it would mean the extradition of all those involved."

In February 1997, a Madrid high court judge, Mr Manuel Garcia Castellon, who had been conducting the continuing investigation in Spain into human rights violations committed in Chile, sought the support of the US Attorney General, Ms Janet Reno. In November of that year her office agreed to assist the Spanish authorities.

Ms Reno authorised Mr Garcia Castellon to travel to Washington DC to study Justice Department files that were to shed further light on many of the crimes committed during Gen Pinochet's rule. Among the files to which Mr Garcia Castellon gained access were documents related to the investigation, trial and convictions in 1977 by courts in the US of civilians and Chilean military personnel involved in the assassination of a Chilean diplomat, Mr Orlando Letelier. It was during this trial that Mr Townley turned state witness.

The Chilean government has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Spanish investigation, repeatedly affirming that a court in Spain lacks jurisdiction over crimes that took place on Chilean soil.

Gen Pinochet has been careful to distance himself from the excesses of his dictatorship but the Spanish investigation is likely to move the "smoking gun" closer to himself.

A continuing trial in Argentina is expected to directly implicate him in the assassination of Gen Prats and his wife in 1974.

Before the arrest of Gen Pinochet, Spain's Foreign Minister, Mr Abel Matutes, had admitted to "a degree of tension" between his country and Chile as a result of Mr Garcia Castellon's investigation.

This degree of tension will increase in the weeks ahead.