Families of students burned in Chile seek legal redress in US
Washington — A $90 million lawsuit was filed in a United States court this week against the government of Chile by the mother of a young man who died after allegedly being set on fire by Chilean troops last summer. ``I'm here to get justice for the death of my son,'' said Veronica DeNegri, mother of Rodrigo Rojas, a 19-year-old US resident who returned to his native Chile earlier this year.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in the US district court here, is the latest development in the Rojas case, which has increased Chile's isolation internationally and further damaged Santiago's already strained relations with the United States.
Joining DeNegri in filing the suit were the parents of Carmen Quintana, an 18-year-old Chilean woman who was also beaten and set afire along with Rojas, reportedly by Chilean soldiers, during a July 2 demonstration against the military government of President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Miss Quintana, who was burned over 60 percent of her body, survived the incident and is receiving treatment at a burn center in Montreal.
The lawsuit charges that the Chilean government and armed forces are liable for $10 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages for a variety of offenses, including unlawful detention, torture, denial of adequate medical treatment, and summary execution.
The suit ``is an attempt through legal means to bring an end to this kind of totally brutal and cruel torture,'' said Peter Weiss, vice-president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based law firm representing Mrs. DeNegri and the Quintanas.
Uldaricio Figueroa, minister-counselor at the Chilean Embassy in Washington, had no comment on the case.
The lawsuit claims that in the Rojas incident Chile violated several of its own laws, as well as various international agreements and treaties, including the Law of Nations, the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Organization of American States' Convention on Human Rights.
According to the suit, Chilean soldiers illegally detained Rojas and Quintana in Los Nogales, a politically active Santiago slum, on the morning of July 2. The soldiers then beat the two, doused them with gasoline, and set them on fire, the complaint continued. The troops later dumped Rojas and Quintana in a drainage ditch some 15 miles away, the suit charged.
The Chilean authorities subsequently refused to admit Rojas and Quintana to a burn facility, added the complaint, and Rojas died four days later.
The Pinochet government had initially claimed that Rojas and Quintana accidentally set themselves on fire with Molotov cocktails that they were holding. This did not satisfy Chile's internal opposition or the Reagan administration, and Santiago's relations with Washington soured further when US Ambassador to Chile Harry Barnes was among hundreds of people teargassed by Chilean police at Rojas's funeral.
The Chilean Army later arrested the military patrol which had encountered Rojas and Quintana on July 2. But in late September the Martial Court, Chile's highest military tribunal, cleared 24 members of the patrol of any wrongdoing. Only the patrol leader, Lt. Pedro Fernandez, has been ordered to stand trial for using ``unnecessary violence'' against Rojas and Quintana.
``We will be able to prove our case,'' said Peter Weiss, ``if they don't kill our witnesses first in Chile.'' He said one witness had to flee Chile, two others are in detention, and Rojas's and Quintana's lawyers in Chile have been threatened.
The biggest obstacle to winning the case is convincing the district court that it has jurisdiction in the matter, said Donald Glascoff, a partner of Cadwalader, Wickersham, and Taft, another New York law firm representing DeNegri and the Quintanas. He said a precedent was set in 1984 when a US court awarded $10 million to the family of Joelito Filartiga, a Paraguayan dissident who was tortured to death in an Asunc'ion police station in 1977.
That case rested on the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act, which gives US courts jurisdiction over cases resulting from injuries inflicted abroad. The judgment in favor of the Filartiga famly ``established the principle that a foreign torturer may be served in an American court for an act of torture occurring abroad,'' said Peter Weiss.
It will be ``difficult but not impossible'' to win a favorable ruling on jurisdiction, added Mr. Glascoff.
Glascoff said his firm has already targeted homes, bank accounts, and other assets in the US belonging to the Chilean military that could be seized if the suit is ultimately successful.
He conceded that to take control of the assets, it may be necessary to seek congressional help in the form of new legislation.
A US State Department official had no comment on the case, saying the government has not yet considered it in detail.
Asked whether Washington will assist the plaintiffs in presenting their case, the official said, ``We'll wait until we get a specific request for help, then we'll have to decide what stance to take.''