FBI Request Prosecution of Pinochet, But no one Lifts a Finger

15 April 2002
Article

After the detention of Pinochet in London, in January 1999, the Justice Department decided to re-open the investigation of the Letelier case.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

(Unofficial translation)

Months before President George W. Bush assumed office on January 20, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) concluded their investigation of the murder of former Chilean minister Orlando Letelier and American Ronni Karpen Moffitt, which happened in Washington, DC in 1976, recommending prosecution of General (retired) Augusto Pinochet as the intellectual author of the double homicide. However, inexplicably, the draft of the indictment prepared by the FBI has been tangled up in the governmental bureaucracy for more than a year.

The memo, signed by the chief of the investigating team of the Justice Department, John Beasley, shortly after his trip to Chile accompanied by DoJ and FBI agents to interrogate 42 Chileans in March 2000, has been "in revision" in the Criminal Division of the DoJ since August of this year.

In his report, Beasley, of the Transnational Crime Section of the Attorney of the District of Columbia, recommended that Augusto Pinochet be prosecuted as the intellectual author of the crime, which was - until September 11 - considered the worst act of international terrorism committed in US territory.

However, nobody moved. "The Letelier case fell into a black hole," admitted a US government source. "No one moved because nobody was pressuring them to move. There is a lack of will. When interest from outside in the case existed, there was movement. But if there are not powerful forces demanding that the case advance, it became frozen," he said.

The recommendation to prosecute Pinochet was dropped long before the September 11 attacks reoriented the priorities and resources of the US judicial apparatus and also before Bush named the ultra-conservative John Ashcroft to be Attorney General.

Nor are the negotiations for a free trade agreement between Chile and the United States a valid excuse for the lack of movement in the case. "The Justice Department rarely is influenced by external pressure and is very protective of their jurisdiction. There may be times when they might be pressured by the White House, but the free trade agreement with Chile does not have much impact. It would have to be a very exceptional situation for the DoJ to drop a prosecution for external reasons. Moreover, they frequently take decisions that are inconvenient for foreign policy," said a State Department source.

There are not reasons for the stagnation of the FBI report in the offices of the Criminal Division, and no government or US judicial source has offered a coherent explanation for why the case has not advanced, despite the abundant evidence against Pinochet. No one wanted to comment on the case, at least not officially.

After the detention of Pinochet in London, in January 1999, the Justice Department decided to re-open the investigation of the Letelier case, assigning 20 agents of the Department and the FBI to the case full time, and specifically focusing on Pinochet. The process of declassifying US government documents (1999-2000) excluded documents that could support the investigation.

The FBI terminated their inquiries in absolute secrecy, months before the US civil and human rights organizations began to demand that the outgoing Attorney General under the government of Bill Clinton, Janet Reno, give her opinion on the case before leaving office. She never did, nor did she report that weeks before, the FBI had submitted their report recommending prosecution of the former Chilean dictator. It was not until much later that people involved in the case could reveal that the FBI had effectively come to a conclusion.

Meanwhile, members of the US Congress did not let up pressure. At least three times, they demanded that the government prosecute the former Chilean dictator for this crime. In May 2000, 36 US representatives demanded that Clinton seek the extradition of Pinochet for trial in Washington. "We appreciate the efforts taken by the Department of Justice on this case. However, we believe that this investigation should be intensified and involve the same energy with which you have investigated other terrorism cases, such as that of Bin Laden," stated the members of Congress, one year and four months before the September 11 attacks.

Six months later, another 15 members of Congress led by Representative Maurice Hinchey urged Clinton to "do everything possible" to prosecute Pinochet. "We are profoundly concerned because the man who we believe is ultimately responsible for these murders - Augusto Pinochet - has not yet been tried," stated the letter to President Clinton on December 15, 2000.

On February 20 this year, 25 members of Congress insisted once again. In a letter directed to US Attorney for the District of Columbia, Roscoe Howard - appointed by Bush - the members stated that the prosecution of Pinochet would "demonstrate to Americans and the world that Washington is willing to pursue terrorists that were once its friends."

It was in vain. "I am perplexed. Already in August 2000, we were in a position of requesting the prosecution of Pinochet and nothing has happened in a year and a half. I am frustrated and the FBI is frustrated," said an official involved in the case.

Unleashing the case is in the hands of the chief of the Criminal Division of the DoJ and Assistant Attorney General, Michale Chertoff. "Chertoff is the last step in the review process. He will decide in the end if DoJ requests a grand jury in the Pinochet case," stated lawyer Sam Buffone, who represents the Letelier family in the United States.

Once approved by the DoJ, a tribunal would be convoked in a grand jury to hear - in secret sessions - the arguments and review the evidence against Pinochet in order to resolve whether it will be prosecuted.

"Ninety percent of the time, the grand jury accepts the DoJ arguments since they generally don't ask for this process if they don't have sufficient evidence against the accused to assure that he will also be tried and found guilty. The DoJ often presents more evidence than is necessary, much more than the minimum required. Therefore, if Chertoff finally approved the memo, the prosecution of Pinochet would be practically a given," explained a lawyer involved in the investigation.

After the acceptance of the grand jury - a process that alone can last several days - the next step would be to ask for Pinochet's extradition, the only accused who has not confronted justice for this case, neither in Chile nor in the United States.

However, no one in the US government has illusions that the Letelier case will go much further. Although the elder general could not allege health reasons to impede a legal trial - since for the United States, it is enough that the accused comprehend the nature of the charges against him to be tried - it is probable that the Chilean Supreme Court would refuse to authorize extradition of Pinochet, for reasons of health or because the standard imposed by the Chilean state for extradition of nationals - including common criminals - is too high. To extradite a Chilean, the tribunals of our country demand that his guilt be proven, whereas the US courts request the extradition after indicting the accused, but before the proof of his guilt.

"It would be symbolic. We know that Chile would never extradite Pinochet if they won't even extradite their narco-traffickers. We have not obtained a successful extradition from Chile in 10 or 15 years. We have always known that the Letelier case would end with the indictment of Pinochet," said a US government source.

While the US government still technically has a pending indictment and extradition request for Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza, first and second in the DINA, but because of that, they were tried and sentenced in Chile and the US government has abandoned their efforts to bring them before a court in their country.

Currently, there is no one under detention for the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. Contreras and Espinoza have already served their sentences of seven and six years, respectively. Last year the two anti-Castro Cubans sentenced in the United States were released; Virgilio Paz served 12 years in prison and Dionisio Suárez, eight. The former DINA agent, American Michael Townley, extradited from Chile in 1978, was under arrest for five years in the United States and now lives under another identify in this country under a witness protection program.

Murray Karpen, father of Ronni Moffitt, wrote the following last January 12 in the Washington Post: "I am baffled that after almost 25 years, faced with newly marshaled evidence and horrific new evidence of the consequences of not combating terrorism, the US government would still hesitate to indict Pinochet. President Bush has made himself clear on the subject of terrorism. But is his Justice Department being selective about which terrorists it prosecutes?"

Copyright 2002 El Periodista