Pinochet Watch no 60

07 June 2005
Article

Pinochet Watch is an electronic news service of the Institute for Policy Studies.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

In this issue:


PINOCHET STRIPPED OF IMMUNITY IN RIGGS BANK CASE
By Alison Guernsey, Special Pinochet Watch Contributor

On June 7 the Santiago Appeals Court voted to strip former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet's parliamentary immunity from prosecution for crimes relating to the ex-dictator's multi-million dollar secret bank accounts. Tuesday's ruling paves the way for the interrogation of the General and the requisite health evaluations to determine if he is fit to stand trial for tax fraud and his other financial crimes.

The ruling is a victory for special investigative Judge Sergio Muñoz who filed the petition with the Santiago Appeals Court to strip Pinochet of his immunity on April 14. Muñoz's petition to strip Pinochet's immunity and the favorable decision of the Appeals Court follow months of investigation and stem from the legal cases filed by the Chilean Internal Revenue Service (SII) and Chilean human rights lawyers Carmen Hertz and Alfonso Insunza. Hertz and Insunza were the first to file criminal charges against the General for fiscal fraud, misuse of public funds, extortion, tax fraud, and improper business dealings in 2004. Subsequently, the Chilean IRS filed a suit against Pinochet and his wife Lucía for tax evasion and misuse of public funds in March 2005.

Numerous entities took part in the arguments against Pinochet, including: Chilean human rights lawyer Alfonso Insunza; Rodrigo Véliz, an attorney with the Chilean Internal Revenue Service; María Teresa Muñoz, the attorney representing the Chilean National Defense Council; and the attorney Víctor Araya, representing the Spanish organization La Fundación Salvador Allende and the victims of the human rights abuses committed under Pinochet's dictatorship. Pinochet's defense attorney Pablo Rodríguez was the only one to make arguments on the General's behalf.

The criminal charges for which Pinochet may be indicted, now that his immunity has been revoked, include: malicious and fraudulent tax declarations; the receipt, production and utilization of false passports and counterfeit certificates of income, which Pinochet tried to use to justify his wealth; and illegal actions aimed at eluding an international freeze on the ex-dictator's assets. The Court voted to maintain Pinochet's immunity with respect to charges of improper business dealings relating to the acquisition of a parcel of land, El Melocotón, in San José de Maipo. Pinochet is believed to have threatened existing land owners with expropriation when they were unwilling to sell him the land voluntarily. The Court argued that since a judicial investigation into these claims was already undertaken it could not be revisited.

Background on the Charges

In spite of the atrocious human rights abuses committed under his power, for years, former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet's supporters could always find comfort in the belief that their dictator was not corrupt. That illusion, even for his most ardent supporters, has been shattered as the web of his secret bank accounts expands, and the charges against the General and his family continue to mount.

Muñoz's petition to strip Pinochet of his immunity is the culmination of an investigation that exploded in July 2004 with the release of a United States Senate report establishing that Pinochet had maintained numerous personal and corporate accounts in Riggs Bank from 1994-1998. In a subsequent report released on March 15, the Senate Investigative Subcommittee estimated that Pinochet's wealth reached $10 million, and was hidden in over 125 off-shore and misleadingly named accounts of which the General and his family were the direct beneficiaries between 1981 and 2004. Twenty-eight of those accounts were in Riggs Bank while at least one hundred more were scattered through banks including Espiritu Santo in Florida, Citibank in New York, Banco de Chile, Banco Atlántico (a Spanish institution with a branch in New York), Bank of America in Simi Valley, Coutts & Co, Ocean Bank in Miami, and Pine Bank, also in Miami.

According to the two Senate reports and Muñoz's investigation, with help from Riggs Bank, Pinochet established off-shore shell companies and trusts which were used to open various international bank accounts using aliases, including ten different combinations of his first names and surnames. These accounts obscured the funds' connection to him and helped the General hide millions of dollars in assets from international prosecutors while he was under house arrest in Britain and subject to Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón's October 1998 world-wide court order to freeze his assets. Through these accounts, Pinochet and his family were able to invest and spend this money using several banks across Latin America to transfer money to and from their Riggs accounts without interruption.

In January, Judge Muñoz uncovered four false passports that Pinochet had made in 1989. Muñoz maintains that these false documents, one of which contained a national identification number for a non-existent person, were used to help the General open the aforementioned accounts, transfer funds, and avoid Spanish judicial action. Pinochet's lawyers, however, maintain that the passports were produced for reasons of security. José Miguel Insulza, the former Minister of the Interior, questioned the defense's claims asserting that "there is no reason that the Commander-in-Chief of the Army should have a passport with another's name... I am unaware of any security reason that would justify having a false passport."

When Pinochet closed his accounts at Riggs in 2002, it is speculated that he transferred up to $16 million from Riggs Bank to Banco de Chile. For this reason, Judge Muñoz requested that Banco de Chile freeze his accounts last August. The freeze was extended to his wife's and the Fundación Pinochet's accounts in January. Pinochet's accounts in BankBoston were also frozen in November following his attempts to make three large withdrawals.

In February, with hopes of settling the Chilean IRS case against him and encouraging Muñoz to unfreeze his assets, Pinochet offered to pay $5 million in back taxes. The Chilean IRS and judge Muñoz initially refused his offer, but on April 27, Muñoz ruled in favor of a defense request to partially lift the freeze. Following this decision, $2.7 million held in the Banco de Chile will be released for immediate payment toward Pinochet's debt, while $3 million remains frozen. The judge's decision faced intense criticism from human rights lawyer Alfonso Insunza who challenged the release of the funds on the grounds that the money's origin is still undetermined and could be tied to crimes for which Pinochet has yet to be charged. Muñoz's action also contradicts the recommendation of the Chilean IRS, which on April 19 requested that the General's assets remain frozen.

Accomplices Indicted

Convinced that Pinochet did not act alone to conceal his wealth and file false tax papers, on April 15, Sergio Muñoz indicted the General's friend, business manager and legal counselor, Óscar Aitken Lavanchy, and his personal secretary, Mónica Ananías. Aitken is suspected of helping Pinochet hide his wealth in the off-shore front companies, six of which Aitken managed. Both Aitken and Ananías are charged with serving as accomplices to the filing of false and incomplete tax declarations between 1984 and 2004. Ananías and Aitken were detained and their assets were immediately frozen. Initially, their petitions for bail were denied by the Santiago Court of Appeals, which considered Ananías and Aitken "dangers to society." On May 5, however, Ananías and Aitken were both released on $5 million bail. In spite of their release, one of the parties to the suit against Pinochet, lawyer Carmen Hertz, praised the indictment, indicating that Muñoz's recognition that Aitken and Ananías are "Pinochet's front men is a good sign with regards to the petition to strip Pinochet of his immunity;" a prediction which appeared to be true. On May 13, the Chilean Internal Revenue Service filed an additional suit against Aitken for fiscal fraud in excess of $1 million. The suit includes charges that Aitken falsely filed his tax returns and failed to declare his personal investments and income for the last six years.

Origin of Funds

Despite the approval of the petition to strip Pinochet of his parliamentary privileges, the investigation into the origin of Pinochet's millions continues. At this point, Muñoz has determined that a large portion of the funds in Pinochet's bank accounts were misappropriated State monies and estimates that Pinochet and his wife Lucía Hiriart's are worth $17,082,252.84. Pinochet's legal defense team disputes his number, maintaining that the General only has $11 million dollars and the origin of those funds is clear and legitimate: $1.7 million from personal savings, $1.8 million from donations, $5 million from interest, dividends and capital earnings from 1965-2004 and $2.5 million from presidential spending reserves.

According to Muñoz, the amount of the presidential spending reserves cited by the defense is inaccurate and the judge has tied the money to Casa Militar, an internal organization of Pinochet's most trusted advisors when he was head of state. Casa Militar managed millions of dollars of these reserved funds for all types of operations, from gardening to payments for informants. Casa Militar held an account at Riggs Bank in which millions of dollars were deposited over time and then from which money was transferred to a variety of Pinochet's bank accounts. Also tied to this money scheme are two former generals, Jorge Ballerino and Guillermo Garín. Muñoz has speculated that the Casa Militar money associated with Pinochet's accounts may have passed through the U.S. bank accounts of Ballerino and Garín.

Fernando Barros, one of Pinochet's lawyers, has claimed that Pinochet's presidential spending reserves were moved abroad in order to create "a security reserve" with which to confront "the climate of fear" that Pinochet anticipated facing after being ousted from power in 1990. Barros continued, "without justifying [moving the money abroad], the political scene for Pinochet was very complicated, it could have consisted of being expelled from power or possibly suffering another attack [on his life]."

Expressing disbelief over Pinochet's claim that $5 million of his funds was generated from the large amount of interest accrued over the years on advice from one of his money managers, the Minister of the Treasury in Chile, Nicolás Eyzaguirre, commented that "if there is some financial advisor that tells you that you should let him manage your funds because he can give you a thirty-percent annual return in the following years, denounce him to the courts because he is trying to swindle you."

The Pinochet Family

The evidence regarding financial irregularities is not only stacked against the ex-dictator, but encompasses his family as well. In Muñoz's petition, Pinochet's son Marco Antonio Pinochet Hiriart and his daughter Inés Lucía were mentioned as conduits for the movement of the General's secret monies. Six of Pinochet's accounts in Citibank were jointly held with Marco Antonio, though he claims that all of the money connected to him is "legitimate" and comes from good investments over the years. False passports under Marco Antonio's name which are suspected to have been used to open off-shore bank accounts have also recently surfaced. In response to these findings, both Marco Antonio and Inés Lucía have been subjected to various proceedings which require them to register all of their assets, communications abroad, and entrances and exits from the country.

Pinochet's wife Lucía Hiriart has also been named in the case brought by the Chilean Revenue Service for tax evasion; her name appears on various checks sent to Pinochet by Riggs from 2000-2002 and she has been listed as the co-signer on many Riggs accounts and off-shore shell companies. Pinochet's defense lawyer Pablo Rodriguez discards her participation in any wrong doing and has said that "it would be unpardonable to attribute willful misconduct to a homemaker, an exceptional mother, a person who has dedicated herself to social services." He considers charging Lucía with any crime amounts to "unwarranted persecution and hatred."

Riggs Bank

Contrary to Pinochet's claims of innocence, in February, Riggs Bank pleaded guilty to a criminal felony charge of failing to report suspicious activities by foreign depositors and actively helping the ex-dictator hide information from the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC), the organization charged with the oversight of national banks. This failure to report violated Riggs's obligations under anti-money laundering laws. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered Riggs bank to pay a $16 million fine while branding the bank a greedy "henchman of dictators." The finance office of the United States Justice Department closed the federal case pending against the institution after the admission of guilt.

Additionally, in response to the charge that Riggs violated the international asset freeze imposed on Pinochet, in February, the bank decided to pay $9 million to the Spanish Foundation President Allende. $8 million will be distributed annually to victims of Pinochet's human rights abuses: 40% to victims listed on the suit against Pinochet in Spain and 60% to those who don't receive any indemnity from Chile.

Further recognizing its guilt, on May 16 Riggs Bank issued an official apology to Banco de Chile for its handling of financial assets held by Augusto Pinochet. Upon closing the Pinochet accounts in 1996 Riggs Bank made two wire transfers totaling approximately $6 million to Banco de Chile's New York branch without any indication that Riggs was closing the accounts due on regulatory concerns and without informing Banco de Chile that the money was tied to Pinochet. In the meantime, Banco de Chile has filed a civil suit against Óscar Aitken, the person supposedly responsible for the transfer, for fraud and abusing the trust of the banking institution.

Chilean Response

Chileans have expressed outrage at the revelations of the U.S. Senate reports and the Muñoz investigation. Soledad Alvear, a member of the Christian Democrat party and former Presidential candidate lamented the "acts which damage the country and the international image. In addition to the human rights violations, now we add these crimes."

Even Pinochet's allies have expressed anger at the General's corruption. Joaquín Lavín, a possible presidential candidate from the right-wing political coalition believes that while "the truth is that corruption can be found anywhere, obviously one would think that in the case of this person [Pinochet] there was none. That it did exist is a profound disillusionment."

Not surprisingly, the General's legal defense team still maintains that he is unable to stand trial and is expected to appeal the Court's decision. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, they keep claiming that soon everything will be cleared up; after all, "it is just a numbers problem."

For more information:
Pinochet fue desaforado por cuatro de los delitos que le imputa Muñoz El Mostrador, 7 June 2005
Derecha dividida ante ‘mayor desafección' pinochetista de Lavín La Nación, 9 May 2005
Jorge Molina Sanhueza Riggs: Muñoz indaga lavado de dinero La Nación, 4 May 2005
Jacmel Cuevas P. CDE: Dos pasaportes usados por Pinochet fueron robados en 1989 El Mostrador, 18 May 2005
Jacmel Cuevas P. Caso Riggs: Juez Muñoz pidió desafuero de Pinochet por cuatro delitos El Mostrador, 15 April 2005
Pablo Bachelet and Greg Fields Pinochet hid cash in Miami banks, other U.S. havens The Miami Herald, 16 March 2005


FRENCH COURT RENEWS ARREST WARRANT FOR PINOCHET

International attempts to prosecute Pinochet for human rights abuses continue as French Judge Sophie Clément renewed the international arrest warrants for Pinochet and 18 other military officials in the disappearance of French citizens in Chile. On June 2, Clément notified the families of the disappeared of the possibility of prosecution and has given the families 20 days to request additional proceedings. Within the next few months, Judge Clément is expected to decide if the 18 officials and Pinochet will be tried by the Paris Criminal Court for their crimes.

EFE News Service (unofficial translation by Alison Guernsey) Thursday 26 May 2005

PARIS - The investigative magistrate overseeing the French case against Augusto Pinochet and eighteen military personnel for the disappearance of five French citizens in Chile during the 1970s has signed their international arrest warrants, judicial sources revealed. The detention orders were signed by Judge Sophie Clément and will be sent to the Paris public prosecutor's office. The prosecutor must then send them to the Foreign Ministry for their international diffusion, sources specified.

This process is the formal updating of the detention orders which were first processed by Judge Roger Le Loire, the magistrate in charge of the case since its initiation in 1998 and who oversaw the investigation until 2001. The case began with the filing of suits by the families of the disappeared. In the renewed detention orders, Judge Clément detailed the French charges against the accused, taking into account information which was revealed in a report from the Chilean National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture. The report was released to the public by the Chilean government in late 2004.

In France, General Pinochet is charged with the disappearance of the French-Chileans Alfonso Chanfreau Oyarce, Etienne Pesle de Menil, Georges Klein Pipper, Jean-Yves Claudet Fernández and Marcel Amiel Baquet. They were detained between 1973 and 1975 in Chile and Buenos Aires by agents of the Chilean secret police organization known as the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA).

Among those also charged in these disappearances include the ex-director of the former DINA, Manuel Contreras, Lieutenant Pedro Espinoza and the alleged German pederast Paul Schaefer, the founder of Colonia Dignidad, a settlement where many of Pinochet's opponents were held. The ex-head of the DINA's international operations, Eduardo Iturriaga Neumann, former agents Marcelo Moren Brito, José Zara, Miguel Krasnoff, and Enrique Arancibia Clavel, all of whom are currently being processed in Chile or Argentina for human rights violations, are also included in the suit.

Pinochet and the remaining accused have been charged with illegal confinement accompanied by or followed by acts of torture, or complicity in acts of torture, which are crimes against humanity and therefore not subject to a statute of limitations or amnesty laws.

Last October, the Paris public prosecutor had requested that the eighteen accused be tried by the Criminal Court, a petition which is now being reviewed by Judge Clément. Source indicate that the decision of the judge to prosecute will be a "decisive element of international jurisprudence" relating to torture considering that other countries may then also choose to prosecute those involved.

Family members of the disappeared are confident that Clément will decide to try the accused, although it is considered unlikely that the trial will be held before 2006.

If the lawsuit were to go forward, Pinochet would have to be tried in absentia because it is unlikely that Chile will grant his extradition. Although there is no bilateral agreement for extradition between Chile and France, French jurisprudence, contrary to that of Spain or Great Britain, allows for lawsuits in absentia.


MANUEL CONTRERAS SAYS PINOCHET RESPONSIBLE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS CRIMES

While awaiting trial for human rights violations, Manuel Contreras, the ex-head of the Chilean secret police force under Pinochet, has issued a report detailing the extent to which the deaths of hundreds of people during the dictatorship were orchestrated by those in top command positions, including Pinochet himself.

Héctor Tobar and Eva Vergara, Chile's Ex-Spy Chief Details 580 Political Killings, L.A. Times, 14 May 2005


CHILEAN JUDGE JUAN GUZMAN RETIRES

Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán, who indicted Pinochet for his role in the Caravan of Death and Operation Condor cases, retired in May. The repercussions of his retirement are already being felt as the judge who took over Guzmán's pending human rights cases, Víctor Montiglio, voted to overturn a sentence against Pinochet's secret police chief, Manuel Contreras, and several other military officials last week. The officials had been convicted and sentenced by a lower court judge for their role in the 1974 disappearance of Diana Aron.

In a 2-1 opinion, Montiglio argued that the 1978 Amnesty Law must be applied even in cases of "permanent kidnapping," thus rendering the sentence invalid. The ruling contradicts a Chilean Supreme Court decision handed down in November 2004. In that decision, the Supreme Court refused to apply the Amnesty Law and upheld the sentencing of Contreras and others in a similar case involving the disappearance of Miguel Angel Sandoval.

Ignacio Badal Chilean Judge who Dared to Pursue Pinochet Retires Reuters, 10 May 2005

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Four years ago Judge Juan Guzmán changed Chilean history when he charged ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet with human rights violations, breaking a longstanding taboo and unleashing a flood of criminal complaints against the once-feared leader.

Guzmán, 65, who retired last week after a 33-year legal career, was the first to indict Pinochet, whose military regime brutally oppressed dissidents, and twice persuaded the Supreme Court to strip Pinochet of immunity from prosecution to face different human rights charges.

Guzmán, the son of a poet who with his family supported the 1973 military coup that launched Pinochet to power, was slowly turned against the military regime when as a judge he became aware of the horror stories about torture and killings by Pinochet's secret police.

"I discovered Chile's suffering little by little, but if I had understood it earlier, perhaps I wouldn't be here," Guzmán said at a recent university talk, referring to the fact that at least 3,000 people died in political violence during the 17-year Pinochet era.

Guzmán's retirement coincided with a decision by the Supreme Court to get rid of special human rights judges, essentially putting an end to an era of intense investigation into abuses, although Guzmán's cases will be handed over to other judges.

"I went a lot further than the lawyers who brought the human rights complaints imagined I would go," Guzmán told Reuters.

Guzmán and his peers say he put his own career at risk by pursuing justice for human rights victims, but he was never able to convict Pinochet, whose lawyers have kept the legal system at bay by arguing the retired general's mild dementia makes him unfit to face criminal proceedings.

Guzmán has said in several recent interviews that he believes Pinochet, whom he questioned personally twice, is exaggerating his ailments to elude justice. He has also said that he is surprised at Pinochet's statements that he did not know that his military officers were abusing people's rights because he thought Pinochet was "braver than that."

Cowed courts

Under Pinochet - now 89 and free on bail in one case against him - tens of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and exiled. The courts have long been criticized for allowing themselves to be cowed by the military during the dictatorship.

Pinochet left power in 1990 and the country returned to democracy. But during the 1990s the center-left government dealt gingerly with the military to avoid provoking backlash, and the courts did not dare pursue human rights cases.


CHILEAN SUPREME COURT ELIMINATES 6 MONTH DEADLINE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS CASES

In light of extreme national and international criticism, a recent Chilean Supreme Court resolution affording judges only six months to conclude their investigations into human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship has been withdrawn. Human rights groups had harshly criticized the Court's deadline, believing that such a time limit would not accelerate justice but would only serve to cripple efforts to promote accountability.

Steve Anderson Santiago Times, Chile's Supreme Court Rescinds Deadline for Rights Cases
Retired Judge Juan Guzmán Slams Judiciary's Collaboration with Pinochet
La Nación, 9 May 2005

(May 9, 2005) Chile's Supreme Court has rescinded the six-month deadline it had imposed for Pinochet-era human rights cases following a public outcry and threats by human rights advocates to appeal their cases to international tribunals.

Had the deadline remained in effect, litigation of human rights cases, which involves several hundred retired and active-duty military personnel, would have been brought to a close on June 15. Most of the human rights violations occurred between 1973 and 1978, a time ostensibly covered by the Pinochet-era amnesty law.

The Supreme Court used the opportunity of their about-face to consolidate human rights cases into the hands of only six Appeals Court judges. Previously, the cases were spread out among 21 of the 31 Appeals Court judges.

The high court said its Friday decision to consolidate the cases resulted from a study done by Judges Milton Juica and Domingo Kokisch, who recommended the measure in view of the retirement of Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia and others.

Of the six judges named to receive the human rights cases, two – Judges Victor Montiglio and Juan Eduardo Fuentes – have voted repeatedly against stripping former dictator Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution, and are thus considered to be less than friendly to human rights allegations.

In related news, Judge Guzmán asserted Sunday that Chile's judiciary collaborated with Pinochet for 17 years and should now acknowledge its errors.

"The Supreme Court should seek Chile's forgiveness. Especially the forgiveness of the relatives of those who were disappeared and executed, and all those who suffered because the courts did not act," Guzmán said in an interview printed in Sunday's edition of state-owned daily La Nación.

Chile's Supreme Court has refused to acknowledge any complicity in the Pinochet-era human rights abuses even after a state-commissioned report on torture – the Valech Report – strongly criticized the judiciary's failure to act during those years. Its six-month deadline for human rights cases was also highly criticized.

"I first began to realize it (that human rights violations were occurring) when I was working as a replacement attorney at the Santiago Appeals Court in 1975 and 1976," Guzmán recounted.

"But as a replacement attorney, my involvement was only to determine facts, not to resolve a case. Still, I was struck by the indifference shown by most of the Appeals Court judges, by the leniency of their actions."

Guzmán retired from the Santiago Appeals Court on May 4 after a career in the judiciary of more than 30 years. He led two unsuccessful efforts to prosecute Pinochet. He first indicted Pinochet in 2001 for his role in the Caravan of Death case, wherein a military entourage traveled to northern Chile by helicopter under direct orders from Pinochet to "expedite" war trials. As a result, 75 political prisoners were executed in several different northern cities. One northern regional commander who protested the killing of prisoners under his responsibility was retired from the Army, while officers who participated in the Caravan of Death were all promoted.

A second indictment by Guzmán came for Pinochet's alleged role in the Operation Condor case, where Pinochet allegedly collaborated with other South American military regimes to hunt down and kill their opponents. Both efforts to prosecute the former dictator failed because of a mental health defense based on Pinochet's alleged senility.

In the interview, Guzmán also explained many of the details behind his unsuccessful effort to prosecute Pinochet and asserted he was pressured many times to back off of his investigation – by Carlos Figueroa, a former minister from the cabinet of President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, and by a senator. Figueroa denied the judge's accusation, asserting that Guzmán's memory was flawed. Guzmán added that he had supposed the former military strongman to be "more courageous" than he turned out to be.

"It was his nature not to assume any responsibility," Guzmán said. "He said the crimes had been committed by lower-ranking military officials. I found this very striking. I had had the impression that he was a courageous man. ... He resorted to the same thing that most people do in Chile when they have committed a crime, he tried to evade responsibility. It was very disillusioning."

Guzmán asserted that Pinochet resorted to a mental illness defense when, in fact, "he is as normal as any one else his age, but even more lucid than most."

(Ed. Note: The full text of the interview with Judge Juan Guzmán will appear later this week in The Santiago Times.)


OBITUARY, JOHN O'LEARY, WORKING TOWARDS JUSTICE FOR PINOCHET'S VICTIMS
by David Sugarman

John O'Leary, who died on 2 April 2005, made an exceptional contribution to United States-Chilean relations and to the struggle to bring justice to Pinochet's victims. As US ambassador to Chile from 1998 to 2001, he brought goodness and a powerful intellect to the office. He did all he could to redress Washington's part in the consolidation of the Pinochet regime.

The US role in Chile had been controversial. Under the Nixon administration, the CIA had attempted to thwart the election of President Salvador Allende in 1970. It was complicit in the overthrow of the Allende Government in 1973 and the rise of the Pinochet dictatorship, despite US knowledge of the junta's massive violations of human rights. The failure of the US embassy in Santiago to protect its own citizens, and its misinformation regarding the coup and its aftermath, were depicted in the Oscar Award-winning movie Missing (1982).

O'Leary brought a welcome breath of fresh air to the fraught atmosphere of US-Chilean relations. People who hitherto had regarded the US ambassador to Chile with suspicion were delighted to discover in O'Leary a warm, personable and compassionate figure prepared to listen open-mindedly to all. He was an implacable ally to those working to secure truth and justice for Pinochet's victims. He backed a nuanced, rather than a hostile, US policy towards the arrest and detention of Pinochet in Britain during 1998-2000 – one that sought to combine "significant respect" for Chile's democracy and non-interference in the Pinochet case with the principles of accountability, justice and the rule of law.

O'Leary also supported the landmark decision of the Clinton Administration to release over 23,000 US classified documents illuminating the human rights crimes of the Pinochet regime and the full extent of American complicity in Pinochet's rise to power. He suggested that the state department should post the documents on its website, but stopped short of advocating an explicit apology.

Nonetheless, a document release provided evidence that could be used in legal proceedings against Pinochet and others. O'Leary encouraged the families of American citizens killed in Chile to use this evidence and to ask the newly invigorated Chilean courts to investigate these deaths.

He pressured the US administration to carry through its longstanding investigation of Pinochet's implication in the 1976 car-bomb murder in Washington DC of former Allende minister Orlando Letelier and U.S. citizen Ronni Karpen Moffitt, by agents of Pinochet's secret police. The administration was put on the spot by O'Leary's public statements that it would pursue these murders to the end, despite the fact that it had not so committed itself. O'Leary's statements had a salutary impact on the legal climate within and beyond Chile. They demonstrated that international impunity was crumbling and that the victims had US support. O'Leary's experience as a trial lawyer and his detailed knowledge of the case against Pinochet convinced him that there was sufficient evidence for it to go to a grand jury, the first step toward issuing an indictment – a view that he thought was shared by the US attorney general. He expected the decision to convene a grand jury would be taken before the end of the Clinton Administration, and was disappointed when this did not occur.

O'Leary was born in Portland, Maine. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University in 1969, where a freshman class had kindled an interest in Chile. It was also at Yale that he met the woman who would become his wife, Colombian-born Patricia Cepeda, god-daughter and translator of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. O'Leary was a Mellon Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge University, where he studied English literature and was awarded a master's degree in 1971. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1974 and became a successful trial lawyer with a Portland law firm. He was active in the Democratic party in Maine, serving on the Portland city council from 1975 to 1982 and was mayor in 1980 and 1981. In 1982 he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for Congress. He served on the governing councils of the American Bar Association, the Inter-American Bar Association and was a member of the Inter-American Commercial Arbitration Commission.

In March 1997, O'Leary organised and chaired a major conference in Argentina on development, the environment, and dispute resolution in the Americas, the first such American Bar Association conference to be convened in Latin America. He also served on a three-member US team appointed by Vice President Al Gore to advise the Bolivian government on economic development and environmental protection. This initiative culminated in the Santa Cruz hemispheric summit on sustainable development. President Clinton, a classmate at Yale Law School, offered O'Leary the ambassadorship to Chile after the two had a rain-soaked conversation in a Costa Rican rainforest.

O'Leary played a leading role in initiating a free trade agreement between the US and Chile, the first of its kind. Returning to Washington in 2001, when the Bush administration took power, he became a principal of O'Leary & Barclay, a company that focused on business opportunities between the US and Latin America. He served as president of the Chilean American Chamber of Commerce and as a board member of the Council of American Ambassadors. The Chilean Government awarded him the Bernardo O'Higgins medal, the highest honour it bestows on a foreign citizen.

During the last year of O'Leary's life, as he fought off the initial effects of Lou Gehrig's disease, he worked with Goldman Sachs of New York and the Wildlife Conservation Society to create a conservation reserve in Tierra del Fuego, near the southern tip of South America.

When I last met John, in June 2004, his engagement with the Pinochet case and human rights was unabated. He was anxious to explore the relevance of the Pinochet precedent to attempts to render US officials accountable for human rights violations in Iraq.

He was an exemplary diplomat whose selfless commitment to the public good revealed the US to be capable of sensitive relations with its smaller and less powerful neighbours, and the constructive promotion of international human rights.

His wife and their two daughters survive him.

John O'Leary, lawyer and diplomat, born January 16 1947; died April 2 2005

David Sugarman, Professor of Law, Lancaster University Law School, England and author of Pursuing Pinochet: A Global Quest for Justice (2006).

This is a revised version of an article published in the Guardian (London) on 20 May 2005.