Clinton Urged to Criticize Pinochet

15 April 1998

Supporters of Orlando Letelier, who was killed by a car bomb planted by Chilean secret police in 1976, want Clinton to speak out against the state-sponsored terrorism practiced by the government of former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

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Associated Press

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

On the eve of President Clinton's state visit to Chile, friends and former colleagues of a Chilean diplomat who was assassinated in Washington are quietly pushing the administration to condemn the excesses of the military dictatorship that ruled this country in the 1970s and 1980s. Supporters of Orlando Letelier, who was killed by a car bomb planted by Chilean secret police in 1976, want Clinton to speak out against the sort of state-sponsored terrorism practiced by the government of former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who remains a senator-for-life. And while Clinton is cheering Chile's resurgent democracy, they say he should also increase US cooperation with a Spanish inquiry into human rights abuses and 'acts of genocide.'

'The Spanish inquiry into Chilean human rights abuses and Pinochet's complicity is a serious international effort to combat terrorism as well as an innovative effort to deal with international human rights issues,' said Sam Buffone, an attorney for Letelier's family in Washington. 'I don't see how Clinton can turn his back on an effort to determine Pinochet's responsibility.' Clinton will reaffirm the US commitment to protecting human rights, National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday, but the president does not plan to directly address the Letelier case.

The bombing that killed Letelier and an aide was one of the worst acts of terrorism ever in the US capital. An investigation led to convictions in Chile of the former head of the nation's secret police and one of his deputies, as well as plea bargains in the United States by two men who carried out the bombing. But investigators felt Pinochet was ultimately responsible and said they had evidence he tried to block their inquiry. Eugene Propper, a federal prosecutor who handled the case, said he recently testified before the Spanish judge investigating Pinochet 'because it always bothered me that we couldn't do anything about the fact that the president of another country was obstructing us.' Propper said he believed Pinochet had approved the bombing. Others said new evidence, including a still-classified intelligence report, warrant reopening the US investigation.

But any of these moves pose a diplomatic risk, such as an appearance of meddling in Chile's internal affairs. Pinochet, 82, who lost the presidential elections in 1990 after 17 years of iron-fisted rule, retired as head of the military only last month. His success in turning Chile into a model of economic reform in Latin America has made him a popular figure with large segments of Chilean society and throughout South America. The general, who has made himself a senator-for-life, may be in the audience when Clinton addresses the Chilean Legislature Friday. Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, said Clinton will deliver a strong pro-democracy message. 'He will say the same thing whether he (Pinochet) is in the audience or not: Chile is a democracy with a glorious recent history of having reclaimed its democracy,' Berger said.

Pinochet came to power in a military coup in 1973. The presidential palace in downtown Santiago was bombed by the air force, and democratically elected President Salvador Allende, a Marxist, committed suicide rather than surrender. Political oppression was severe under Pinochet. Officially, the government says 3,197 leftists and other dissenters were tortured and killed. Thousands more fled to exile.

Released from prison, Letelier, who served as both Allende's foreign minister and his ambassador to Washington, returned to Washington as a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he continued to speak out against Pinochet until he was assassinated. One conspirator in the killing testified that Pinochet personally encouraged him to frustrate the US investigation, and the former head of Chile's secret police said in December that Pinochet always approved his operations. Former federal officials involved in the case told a Spanish inquiry into claims filed against Pinochet by Chilean expatriates that it was 'inconceivable' that Pinochet wasn't involved in plans to kill Letelier, given the hierarchical nature of the Pinochet government and the fact that Letelier's assassination was the third carried out by Chilean agents abroad. Saul Landau, a Letelier colleague at IPS, said their testimony was based on a classified document prepared by the CIA with information from a Defense Department attache stationed in Santiago. It is that document that Pinochet's enemies want the Clinton administration to share with the Spanish judge. Landau, who said he was shown the report by a government official, said the Justice Department's cooperation with the Spanish inquiry has been 'ambivalent.'

Copyright 1998 Associated Press