JUST as Chile's civilian government was preparing to write the last chapter in its human rights saga by releasing remaining political prisoners, the assassination of a right-wing senator here has prompted concerns about renewed political violence. Jaime Guzman, the chief ideologue of the military regime headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990, was gunned down Monday as he left the Roman Catholic university where he taught a law class. The attack came in the shadow of the March 4 release of a government human rights report criticizing the military and former secret police for the death or disappearance of 2,025 people between 1973 and 1990.
Callers to news agencies took responsibility for the slaying in the name of two different ultra-leftist groups. Guzman played a major role in drawing up the 1980 Constitution, the cornerstone of General Pinochet's ``new structure'' for the Chilean political system. Guzman was elected senator for Santiago in 1989 elections that ended 16 years of military rule.
The assassination came only a week after President Patricio Aylwin had successfully traversed a tense March 27 meeting in which the human rights report was presented to the National Security Council.
At the meeting, Pinochet (who remains commander in chief of the armed forces) and other commanders defended the repression of the era to a panel of congressmen. Mr. Aylwin appointed the panel last year to conduct a human rights investigation. The aim, analysts say, was to provide the country a ``catharsis'' without threatening the military.
Despite their differences, senators on Aylwin's National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation and Army generals joked amicably at last week's meeting. Many officials felt the last big hurdle in civic-military relations had been cleared.
The government was also working on a formula to release most of 190 remaining political prisoners and a reparations package for family members of the disappeared. On March 23, Congress had approved a constitutional change allowing the release.
But even before the Guzman assassination, not everyone was happy with the direction taken by the new civilian authorities. Lawyer Pamela Pereira, who represents the association of relatives of the detained-disappeared, objected strenuously to the government's decision to declare the disappeared ``legally dead.''
Ms. Pereira, whose father is among those arrested and never accounted for, says the government was ``playing with fire'' by trying to close the book on the disappeared. ``They seem to be looking for a confrontation with us, as if to say, `Do something about it.'''
Other critics note that, despite the fanfare accompanying the report, none of those accused of rights violations under Pinochet have been put on trial. An amnesty for all political crimes, issued by the military junta in 1978, remains on the books.
``Many very serious crimes have gone unpunished,'' says Hector Salazar, a lawyer who has handled hundreds of rights cases. ``The lesson of this [Guzman] assassination is that when demands for justice go unsatisfied, there will be some sort of reaction.''
Military leaders see a different lesson. In rebutting the human rights report, many expressed resentment, saying it was biased and incomplete. They also defended the armed forces 16-year rule. Navy Commander Jorge Mart'inez warned that the ``war'' against subversion had not ended, but had merely ``entered a new phase.'' Military spokesmen point to a recent wave of criminal and political violence. The Guzman assassination, they add, only proves how right they were.
In private, government officials acknowledge that prosecution of those responsible for the crimes was always considered unrealistic, but that Aylwin felt the truth should be established.
Chances for any significant redress through the Chilean court system seem remoter than ever. When Aylwin criticized the Supreme Court for its collaboration with the military regime, the justices reacted sharply, warning that his remarks undermined the political system and put them in danger of terrorist attacks.
The Guzman killing and two other recent assassinations of a police captain and an Army major have increased pressure on the government to drop the human rights issue and turn its attention to combatting terrorism.
Congressional Deputy Evelyn Matthei, the daughter of Air Force Commander Hernando Matthei, both of whom are considered relative moderates, called for the formation of a special antiterrorist force despite its negative connotations. The now-dissolved secret police bodies, accused of the worst political crimes, always claimed to be acting in the fight against terrorism.
Meanwhile, Chile's remaining political prisoners are likely to remain behind bars a while longer, since some of them belonged to the paramilitary groups being linked to the latest killings.
``It's ironic that they should be blamed for things that occur while they're in jail,'' says Alfonso Insunza, a defense lawyer, ``especially when those who tortured them not only walk around freely but are decorated by their former comrades in arms.''