Human Rights Watch Urges US to Get Involved in Pinochet Case

HRW Press release
22 Octubre 1998

Human Rights Watch today urged the United States government to publicly support and promote the extradition of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Human Rights Watch today urged the United States government to publicly support and promote the extradition of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain.

In a letter to President Bill Clinton, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth called on the US government to transfer to Spanish judges all evidence it has collected on Pinochet's crimes. Spanish authorities have requested that the United States share, among other evidence, the results of its investigation into the involvement of Chilean security forces in the assassination of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. Press reports suggest that the American government has not complied fully with Spain's request.

An American citizen, Ronni Moffitt, was also killed when a bomb exploded under Letelier's car on September 21, 1976. At least two other Americans were executed by government agents after the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power, according to a 1991 report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation.

"The US government can't sit on the sidelines in this case", said Roth. "Pinochet is wanted for crimes against American citizens, and even crimes on American soil. Washington needs to speak out in favor of prosecuting this tyrant".

Since Pinochet's arrest on October 16 in London, the US government has declined to speak publicly about the case, calling such comment "inappropriate".

Roth urged Clinton to contact the British and Spanish authorities to help accelerate the handover of Pinochet. Fears of disrupting relations with Chile, which has opposed the extradition, should not guide US policy in this important international legal matter, Roth said.

Roth noted that the US took a strong stand earlier this year in recommending that the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot be handed over to courts in the West, possibly Canada. But the jurisdictional basis for Spain to proceed against Pinochet, whose regime executed Spanish citizens, is potentially much stronger than the case against Pol Pot, who did not kill any Canadians, Roth added.

Human Rights Watch's letter also suggested that by cooperating in the Pinochet case, the United States could help to repair the damage done to its image as a human rights leader at the negotiations for an international criminal court this summer in Rome. The United States was one of only seven nations that voted against the treaty to establish the court, which will investigate and prosecute future cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. One hundred and twenty nations voted for the treaty. "One day, we hope, an international criminal court will help deter tyrants like Pinochet from committing their crimes in the first place", said Roth. "Until that day comes, the US needs to throw its public support behind this extradition. Washington has to get back on the right side of issues of international justice".

Dear President Clinton:

Human Rights Watch urges the United States to help promote judicial accountability for the crimes committed during the military rule of Augusto Pinochet. We look to the United States to indicate clearly and publicly to the governments of Spain and the United Kingdom that it supports efforts to achieve justice for crimes against humanity committed under the direction of General Pinochet. As a concrete measure of that support, the US can and must cooperate fully with Spanish authorities investigating the case by providing all evidence in its possession of these crimes.

The systematic human rights violations committed by the Chilean military during the Pinochet dictatorship amount to crimes against humanity. Official Chilean investigations have confirmed that more than 3,100 people were victims of extrajudicial execution or "disappearance". Thousands of others were victims of torture, arbitrary detention, forced internal exile, or other abuses.

International law - as well the prevention of future atrocities - demands the prosecution of those responsible for these abuses. The Chilean military granted itself an amnesty in 1978, however, and the Chilean justice system has investigated and prosecuted only the rarest of cases.

Self-conferred impunity should hold no sway internationally. Future tyrants must understand that punishment awaits those who commit crimes against humanity, internationally if not domestically. The United States should therefore encourage and support efforts to prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity.

The United States also has a more immediate interest in a full investigation of General Pinochet's crimes. According to Chile's official National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least three US citizens were murdered in Chile after the 1973 coup. These include Charles Edmund Horman and Frank Randal Teruggi, who were executed by the military in September 1973. In addition, in September 1976, a terrorist car-bombing killed former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and US citizen Ronni Karpen Moffitt in Washington, DC. A US grand jury indicted four members of Pinochet's security police, the DINA, including the agency's chief of operations Army Brig. Pedro Espinoza and its director Army Gen. Manuel Contreras Seplveda, a man who reported directly to General Pinochet. In 1975, both Contreras and Espinoza went to prison in Chile for the crime.

The undertaking by Spanish judges Baltazar Garzón and Manuel García-Castellón to bring General Pinochet to justice is based on well-established international law and practice giving Spain the right to assert jurisdiction over crimes against Spanish nationals in Chile. In addition, as those who commit crimes against humanity are considered enemies of all mankind, their crimes, even against non-Spaniards, can also be tried by Spanish courts.

Nonetheless, public statements by US officials since Pinochet's detention by law enforcement authorities in the United Kingdom have been disappointingly restrained, referring only to the need to avoid commenting on the judicial process and suggesting that the matter is strictly between Spain, the United Kingdom, and Chile. This is not a question of interference in judicial independence, however. Any Spanish judicial decision to seek extradition would have to be approved by the Spanish government, and the Spanish government should know where the US stands. The lack of public US support for the investigation - particularly given the US's direct interest in the case - sends the signal that the United States is indifferent to bringing General Pinochet to trial.

The US's muted position on the need to bring Pinochet to justice contrasts with its active attempts earlier this year to seek to bring Pol Pot to trial in Canada. That effort would have required Canada to use a pure theory of universal jurisdiction-without Canada having any particular nexus to the crimes in question-while the Spanish investigation is currently proceeding on the basis of the murder, torture, and "disappearances" of Spanish citizens, a more traditional jurisdictional theory. The US should be at least as supportive of Spain's assertion of jurisdiction over Pinochet as it was of attempts to try Pol Pot in Canada.

A concrete measure of US support would be to provide all the information the US has collected relating to General Pinochet's role in crimes against humanity, including the extensive evidence it amassed in the investigation of the Letelier-Moffitt murders. We are concerned, however, by reports that the US has been stingy in its cooperation with requests made by Spanish law enforcement authorities acting under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the US and Spain. A public statement by the US on the importance of accountability would also serve to dispel the impression that the US does not favor the investigation going forward.

We know that, just as the Chilean judiciary has been unable to prosecute General Pinochet, the government of Chile now opposes the Spanish extradition request. But while domestic legal and political considerations in Chile may give the country's leaders grounds to explain their actions, international law recognizes no such excuses. The same is true of the Chilean government's claim of diplomatic immunity, since Pinochet was not on diplomatic mission or in an official delegation temporarily conferring diplomatic status. In any event, diplomatic immunity should not be a shield for those accused of committing crimes against humanity. Similarly, we believe that short-term concerns that the prosecution of crimes against humanity will jeopardize transitions by causing tyrants to cling to power are outweighed by the international community's long-term interest in making it clear to future tyrants that they face punishment if they embark on crimes against humanity.

Mr. President, Human Rights Watch, together with many governments and victims of abuse, viewed the United States' positions during this summer's diplomatic conference in Rome to establish an International Criminal Court as a retreat from traditional US support for the prosecution of crimes against humanity. US leaders responded that it was not. Particularly since this case involves a responsible democracy pursuing crimes committed against its own citizens, the Pinochet investigation is an opportunity to resurrect the United States' image as a proponent of accountability for the worst international crimes.

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
cc: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright