Pressure to Prosecute Pinochet Mounts

07 December 1998

Six weeks after the arrest in London of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the pressure on the administration of US President Clinton to indict the former Chilean dictator for murders his secret police committed here 22 years ago is mounting steadily.

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Interpress Service

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Six weeks after the arrest in London of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the pressure on the administration of US President Bill Clinton to indict the former Chilean dictator for murders his secret police committed here 22 years ago is mounting steadily. At a press conference here Monday, more than three dozen human rights, church, environmental, and peace groups called on Clinton to 'immediately reopen the investigation of General Pinochet's responsibility' for the 1976 assassination in Washington of former Chilean Defence Minister Orlando Letelier and his US research assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Amid indications of a growing debate within the administration about Pinochet, the groups - which included such heavyweights as Amnesty International USA, Friends of the Earth, and Human Rights Watch - also urged it 'to finally abandon its stated neutrality and formally and publicly support General Pinochet's prosecution, including his extradition to Spain'. They were joined by family members of Letelier and Karpen Moffitt, as well as surviving relatives of other victims of Pinochet's repressive rule over Chile from 1973 to 1990. 'This man must be tried, judged and ultimately condemned for his crimes', said Michael Moffitt, Karpen Moffitt's widower, who was himself injured by the bomb planted and detonated by Chilean agents as Letelier drove them to work in downtown Washington on Sep 21, 1976.

The groups' demands were also echoed by the man who prosecuted the Letelier-Moffitt case in US federal courts. In a prominently displayed article in Sunday's Washington Post, lawyer E. Lawrence Barcella called on the administration to revisit the case to determine whether Pinochet should be indicted and possibly extradited to the United States to stand trial. 'There was not a shred of doubt in my mind that Pinochet ordered the murders (of Letelier and other exiles)' when he left the US attorney's office in 1986, Barcella wrote. 'Thus far', he went on, 'the government of other nations (which have sought Pinochet's extradition from Britain) have stood up to Pinochet for the rights of their citizens. Our government must do the same'.

These new developments came just days before British Home Secretary Jack Straw is scheduled to decide on a request by Pinochet and Chile's government to permit him to return home for 'compassionate' reasons. Pinochet, who was recovering from back surgery when he was arrested on a Spanish extradition warrant, just turned 83. Since his arrest, the Clinton administration has tried to keep silent on the issues raised by the case. It has repeatedly insisted that the decision about whether to extradite Pinochet to Spain was a matter between the three governments involved. It even refused to take a position on the case after Britain's highest court two weeks ago rejected Pinochet's position that he, as a former head of state, was immune from extradition or prosecution for any act carried out while he was in office. Instead, it announced that it would review thousands of documents held by US agencies on human rights abuses committed under Pinochet with an eye to their eventual declassification. At the same time, several senior officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, suggested publicly that Pinochet should be allowed to go home in response to the Chilean government's request. This position and Washington's refusal to take a clear position on the merits of the case angered and mobilised human rights groups and others who have called for the administration to come out strongly in favour of Pinochet's extradition, if not to Spain, then possibly to the United States itself.

Calling the Letelier-Moffitt killings 'the worst act of international terrorism to take place on the soil of the United States', the families' attorney, Sam Buffone, said the US administration should cease its 'feigned neutrality' in the case and recognise that 'Pinochet must now be brought to justice'. There is some indication that the administration may be taking this appeal increasingly seriously. Buffone's requests for a meeting with top officials were ignored last month, but during the past 10 days he has met high-level officials in both the State and Justice Departments. Knowledgeable sources told IPS Monday that the Justice Department is now actively considering seeking Chile's cooperation in an investigation. Similarly, several senior State Department officials are pressing Secretary Madeleine Albright to come out in favour of re-opening the Letelier case in inter-agency and Cabinet discussions, according to sources who asked not to be identified.

The Spanish judge who issued the warrant, Baltasar Garzón, is investigating the killing of scores of Spanish and other citizens as part of Operation Condor. That operation was a scheme involving the Chile's secret police, DINA/CNI, and those of other military dictatorships in Latin America during the 1970s to liquidate opponents both within their countries and overseas. The Letelier assassination - the third in an annual series of prominent killings carried out by the DINA in Argentina and Italy - was part of Operation Condor. Condor's existence was disclosed after the Letelier-Moffitt killings when an Argentine general tipped off an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) based in Buenos Aires. That tip became the basis of an intensive investigation which resulted in the successful 1978 prosecution in US federal courts of a number of DINA officers and agents, and later in Chile of DINA's director, Gen. Manuel Contreras Sepulveda.

Indeed, the US government has more information about how the operation was run - and the role Pinochet played in it - than can be found anywhere else except Chile, according to US officials. When this is added to other evidence that has come out in cases in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, as well as a lengthy statement by Contreras himself, both Buffone and Barcella believe Pinochet's leadership role in Condor can be established beyond doubt. Due to US pressure, the Letelier-Moffitt murders are the only ones which are explicitly exempted from the 'self-amnesties' decreed by the Pinochet regime before the return to elected government in Chile in 1990. Those amnesties have been sweeping in scope, leaving no possibility that Pinochet could be prosecuted in Chile for any of the thousands of other killings and disappearances for which his regime was responsible, according to human rights groups.

Copyright 1998 InterPress Service