US Also Leans Toward Prosecuting Pinochet

09 December 1998

The administration of President Bill Clinton appears on the verge of launching a new investigation of the role of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's in a 1976 political assassination.

Published at
Interpress Service

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

The administration of President Bill Clinton appears on the verge of launching a new investigation of the role of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's in a 1976 political assassination here which could initiate a formal prosecution. State Department spokesman James Foley signalled the administration's intentions Wednesday when he noted that the car- bomb killings of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his American research assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, 'merits special attention by the United States'. He added that the State Department, which previously adhered strictly to a neutral position on whether Pinochet should be extradited from Britain - where he was arrested in October - to Spain, would support any decision by the Justice Department to pursue a new investigation. 'We would support any decision by the Justice Department with respect to further investigations and, if appropriate, prosecution', he said.

The Justice Department had no official comment on Foley's remarks and one official told IPS that 'no decision' had been taken on the issue - which probably would be decided by Attorney-General Janet Reno herself. But Sam Buffone, the attorney who has represented the Letelier and Moffitt families in meetings with senior Justice and State officials in recent weeks hailed the State Department's words as a 'significant step forward'.

Foley's statement followed by just two hours the announcement from London that British Home Secretary Jack Straw had approved the opening of extradition proceedings against Pinochet pursuant to the request by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón. It was Garzón, who has been investigating human rights abuses committed by the security forces of Latin America's military dictatorships during the 1970s, who issued the original warrant which resulted in Pinochet's arrest in London in mid-October. The State Department, insisting that it had not had time to review Straw's decision, declined to comment on its merits. Instead, Foley noted that the extradition process, which includes 'multiple rights of appeal at every stage', could last a very long time. The process, he said, 'has only begun in effect today'.

Independent human rights groups and the families of victims of Pinochet's repression, however, rejoiced at the news from London. 'This is a defining moment in the effort to end impunity for international crimes', said Michael Posner, director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. 'The fact that Jack Straw chose legal process above political considerations sends the strongest possible message about the importance of the rule of law', Posner said. 'This decision bring us one step closer to the day when Pinochet will have to answer for his terrible crimes', said Reed Brody, Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. 'There's a growing international consensus, both legal and political, that those responsible for the worst atrocities must be punished'.

'This ruling has great meaning for victims of human rights abuses, not only in Chile, but all around the world', said Isabel Letelier, Orlando's widow, who moved back to Chile from Washington several years ago. 'Hopefully, this ruling will send a message to other heads of state that these types of crimes must never happen again'.Letelier currently is visiting Washington. She and members of other families whose loved ones fell victim to Pinochet's rule and by some three dozen human rights, church, and peace groups here, called Monday for the Clinton administration to take steps to show its support for bringing the 83-year-old former general to justice. They asked for Washington to publicly support Pinochet's extradition to Spain; release all relevant documents regarding the Pinochet regime's abuses; renew the investigation of Pinochet's involvement in the Letelier-Moffitt killings, as well as in the disappearance of two US citizens immediately after the 1973 coup d'etat; and begin extradition proceedings to bring Pinochet here.

Until Wednesday, Washington had only decided to begin a review of thousands of classified documents in its possession on abuses committed under the regime with a view to releasing them publicly. Garzón also has submitted requests - to which Washington has not yet responded - for specific documents, including those which address Operation Condor - the code name given to the Chilean- run trans-border operation by which the secret police of the military dictatorships in Latin America's southern cone cooperated in the disappearance of suspected dissidents. The Letelier assassination was part of Condor, according to US investigators who prosecuted the case here. That case resulted in the 1978 conviction and imprisonment here of several of the assassins - an American citizen working for the Chilean secret police (DINA), two Cubans he hired to detonate the bomb, and a Chilean army officer worked for DINA. In 1995, two Chilean generals, including DINA chief Manuel Contreras, were imprisoned for their roles in the assassination, the only act which took place during the Pinochet era which was not covered by two amnesties that were decreed before Pinochet left office in 1990. Since his imprisonment, Contreras has insisted that all major operations carried out by DINA were approved and ordered in advance by Pinochet himself. Already-declassified Pentagon documents confirm that Contreras reported exclusively to Pinochet. Last Sunday the chief US prosecutor in the case wrote in the Washington Post that 'there was not a shred of doubt in my mind that Pinochet ordered' Letelier's murder.

In his talks with senior Clinton officials, Buffone has called for the appointment of an ambassadorial-level official by the State Department to co-ordinate the release of documents and investigate precisely what US agencies know about Pinochet's role in the assassination. 'We want the administration to conduct a full investigation, and, if appropriate, to issue an indictment', he said, adding that Washington must also co-operate fully with Garzón's investigation.