Pinochet and the Caravan of Death

An Interview with Stacie Jonas
01 December 2001
Article

Stacie Jonas, Coordinator of the Bring Pinochet to Justice Campaign run by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, answers questions about the ongoing case against Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

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Human Rights

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

1. Pinochet has been accused of ordering the execution of political prisoners in the case known as the "Caravan of Death" in October of 1973. What was the Caravan of Death?

The Caravan of Death is the name given to the military envoy that traveled throughout Chile in October of 1973, executing at least 72 political prisoners. The Caravan was headed by General Sergio Arellano Stark, who was allegedly acting under direct orders from Augusto Pinochet. When informed of the results of the mission, Pinochet reportedly promoted those officers who participated in the extrajudicial executions. Those who opposed the executions were called to retirement, jailed, or tortured.

Nineteen of the Caravan's victims have never been found, and are thus considered "disappeared". The Chilean Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld that disappearances constitute unsolved cases of permanent kidnapping and therefore do not fall under the 1978 Chilean Amnesty Law that forgave most crimes committed between 1973 and 1978. When the Supreme Court voted to strip Pinochet's parliamentary immunity from prosecution, it was because there exist "well founded suspicions" of his involvement in the disappearance of these 19 individuals.

General Arellano Stark and six other military officers are also facing trial for their participation in the Caravan of Death disappearances.

2. The Caravan of Death case is one of many cases against Pinochet. What about all these other cases? Will the court ever take them up?

There are currently over 160 cases filed against Pinochet in Chile, all of which are overseen by Judge Juan Guzmán. These cases remain under active investigation, and any decision to pursue an indictment for these other charges is up to the discretion of Judge Guzmán.

There are also several investigations or cases that have been brought against Pinochet outside of Chile (Argentina, France, Spain, Belgium, and the US). These cases are in different stages of development, but are still active. It is possible that these foreign courts could still issue an indictment of Pinochet for his role in a variety of crimes and request his extradition.

3. Before Judge Guzman can proceed, Pinochet will have to submit to a medical examination to determine whether or not he is fit to stand trial. Earlier this year, the UK Home Secretary Straw ended the extradition proceedings against Pinochet for medical reasons. Won't Chilean doctors come to the same conclusion?

It is important to note the British medical examinations were highly contested by international medical experts from around the world. Many leading experts opined that the exams were inconclusive. After reviewing the results, judges from Spain, France, Belguim, and Switzerland concluded that Pinochet was, in fact, mentally and physically able and competent to stand trial.

Pinochet's triumphant return to Chile in March, in which he sprung from his wheelchair to greet supporters, along with several recent public appearances have led many to further question the Home Secretary's decision. For example, in August, while dining in a restaurant in the coastal city of Viña del Mar, Pinochet told the press, "My health is good and my spirits are high".

More importantly, Chilean law states explicitly that a defendant can only be exempted from trial if he is declared demented or crazy, something that neither Pinochet nor his lawyers or supporters have ever claimed. Although Judge Guzmán is required by law to order medical exams for any defendant over the age of 70 (Pinochet is 84), Pinochet's lawyers insist that their client should be excused from trial only because of his physical condition, not because he is demented. Several of Pinochet's family members have recently suggested that the retired General would refuse to submit to mental health exams altogether. Therefore, it is far from certain that Pinochet will avoid trial in Chile on medical grounds.

4. The US has started declassifying documents related to covert actions by the US government to undermine the Allende government and support General Pinochet. How is the declassification project proceeding?

Several US agencies have already released over 7,000 previously classified documents on human rights abuses and other political violence in Chile. The next release is scheduled for September 14, 2000.

The majority of the documents have been released by the Department of State. George Tenet, the director of the CIA, recently announced that the intelligence agency will not release hundreds of documents that were compiled by CIA analysts for the September declassification. Tenet claims that the release of the documents would reveal a pattern of activity and intelligence methods used by the CIA throughout the world. Human rights activists in the US and abroad have condemned this decision and suggest that it puts the credibility of the entire declassification in jeopardy.

In a letter to Tenet, US Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stated, "Our democracy distinguishes itself from other closed societies by the principle of accountability through an informed electorate with access to information. To withhold this history now will be perceived as a major effort to hide the past from public scrutiny...it will damage the modern image of the CIA, as well as the credibility of US efforts to press other nations...to acknowledge and redress their own pasts as a way of moving forward toward a better future".

5. Currently, the US Department of Justice is investigating the Letelier-Moffitt murders. Any developments in this case? (Note to readers: Chilean agents killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt with a car bomb in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 1976. Both worked for the Institute for Policy Studies.)

US investigators traveled to Chile in March of this year to take testimony and gather evidence for the Letelier-Moffitt case. The Chilean Supreme Court, acting under a request by a District of Columbia Federal Court, also interrogated 42 witnesses relevant to the case. The investigators returned to Washington in late April to analyze the information gathered in Chile. That same month, Attorney General Janet Reno personally assured Isabel Letelier, Orlando's widow, that the Justice Department is very serious about the investigation. A Grand Jury has been convened to hear testimony and review evidence.

The Letelier-Moffitt assassination has been called the worst act of proven state-sponsored terrorism ever committed on US soil. Two FBI agents and a former Assistant US Attorney have stated that it is "inconceivable" that the assassination took place without Pinochet's approval.