Judges Jab at Ex-Dictator's Defense

Vengeance or reconciliation? This second of a two-part series looks at more examples of nations dealing with former despotic leaders since the collapse of communism and the spread of democracy. Part 1 ran in last week's Global Report.

DAGOBERTO PEREZ was disgusted when the former police agent - who helped kill his parents - stuck out his hand in a friendly greeting.

But rather than stalking away, the university student forced himself to be civil so he could find out all he could about the murders of his mother, Lumi Videla, and his father, Sergio Perez. The two were among 3,129 victims of Chile's ``dirty war,'' a 13-year period in which a rightist military fought leftist opposition.

Thanks to that jailhouse encounter with Osvaldo Romo in 1993, Mr. Perez knows the names of several suspects in the murder of his mother under torture and the probable location of his father's secret grave in the garden of a military school.

And in a rare development for Chile, he might also get a chance to see his parents' killers go to jail.

In September, many Chileans were stunned after two appeals court judges struck down the controversial amnesty law enacted under the regime of former president Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Until now, that law had prevented trials of human rights violations committed by the military between 1973-1978.

The judges ruled in favor of the argument that Chile had signed and adopted as law several international human rights treaties such as the Geneva Convention, which bars kidnapping, torture, and the murder of prisoners. Such laws, they agreed, superseded any domestic statute and would allow human rights abuse cases to come to trial.

``The military has always justified their actions by saying there was a civil war,'' says attorney Hector Salazar, a member of a church-sponsored legal team that devised the strategy. ``So that's the way we are fighting them in court.''

POLITICAL observers point to several reasons for such sudden judicial independence, including the strengthening of democracy and the appointment of more liberal judges.

As a result, the nation's Supreme Court has been forced to reopen the Lumi Videla case as well as the 1974 disappearances of two leftist militants, Barbara Uribe and her husband, Edwin Van Jurick. The court could rule at any time.

General Pinochet - who says he will remain as the commander in chief of the Army until 1997 when he is constitutionally required to step down - is still strong enough to influence the 17 Supreme Court judges, who have usually ruled against reopening such lawsuits. And although Supreme Court President Marcos Aburto has told reporters that international treaties should supersede national laws, he has also said that he needs time to study the two cases.

Pinochet, who ruled between 1974-90 after toppling President Salvador Allende Gossens in a coup, has always justified his regime's bloody repression by saying that he fought an organized armed opposition. ``We were in a war, you must understand that,'' he said last year.

But after the recent court decisions, the armed forces seem to be backing down on that assessment. Gen. Fernando Torres Silva, the Army's chief attorney, recently told the conservative Santiago daily El Mercurio, that what really existed was ``kind of an internal war,'' or perhaps ``an internal commotion.''

There's no telling how Pino-chet will react if the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court decision.

Such a verdict could spur hundreds of similar cases and force both active and retired soldiers to stand trial. Pinochet has repeatedly vowed never to let one of his men be sent to prison.

``[Pinochet's presence] is a psychological factor not to provoke the military,'' says Mr. Salazar, the attorney who has received numerous death threats and has been sued three times by the Army for sedition and libel.

Not surprisingly, the Natonal Congress and President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the second democratically elected president since Pinochet stepped down in 1990, have left human rights issues to the courts.

And the courts have left much unturned until recently.

Ms. Videla was a young sociologist and like her husband, a member of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), when she was arrested by agents of the now-defunct military intelligence agency known as DINA. Her husband Sergio Perez, who robbed banks during the 1960s to bankroll leftist groups, was picked up the next day.

Mr. Perez was never seen again, but Videla's corpse was thrown over the garden wall of the Italian Embassy two weeks later.

At the time, the government-controlled press claimed that she had died after a ``wild party'' held on the embassy grounds by some 200 Chilean leftists who had taken refuge there.

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