Chile's Democracy Passes a Key Test In Ruling on Past Military Abuse

WITH a high court decision last week confirming prison sentences for two men who symbolize the worst brutality of the former military regime, Chile passed its most demanding test in five years of democracy.

The unanimous Supreme Court decision is hailed as a major step toward strengthening democracy and establishing justice in cases involving human rights violations. Human rights lawyers say the case represents a trend within the judicial system, and hope it will help resolve another 1,100 cases still before the courts.

But, conservative politicians are calling for a new amnesty law to prevent further trials. Alejandro Foxley, president of the Christian Democrats, says the decision shows that "in Chile today, no one is above the law."

When Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte stepped down from the presidency in 1990, he stayed on as Army commander in chief and threatened to overthow the legal government if any of his men were touched. General Pinochet's passive reaction to the decision shows that respect for the legal institutions he created has taken precedence.

"Under the military, the courts simply made the repression look legal," says Hector Salazar, a veteran human rights lawyer. "This decision shows a definite change." Now a more difficult test of the Chilean government is still to come: putting the guilty men behind bars.

One of the convicted men, Brig. Pedro Espinoza, says he'll obey the court. But the other, retired Gen. Manuel Contreras, is holed up on his farm in southern Chile, protected by soldiers. He claims he is the victim of a campaign to destroy the armed forces and vows he won't go to jail.

The government says it will use force to arrest Mr. Contreras if necessary. Even the former regime's supporters insist that he must obey the court. Defense Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma says even the Army respects the decision. A motion by defense lawyers has delayed the arrest order.

After a military coup in 1973, Contreras headed the DINA, the secret police organization that kidnapped thousands of Chileans, many of whom vanished forever. With Mr. Espinoza, he created a network of 2,000 agents and 50,000 informers and then went after the regime's opponents abroad.

The trial focused on a car bomb that went off in Washington in 1976, killing Orlando Letelier, a former minister in Chile's left-wing government, and an American colleague. The FBI traced the crime to DINA. Michael Townley, an US-born DINA agent who organized the bombing, after being arrested, revealed an intricate network of DINA-organized crimes on three continents.

Mr. Townley and his accomplices eventually served time in jail in the United States. But in Chile, the military hastily passed an amnesty law that excluded the Letelier case. Mr. Letelier's sister and a lawyer finally brought the case to trial after 12 years of legal wrangling.

For the courts, the case offered the chance to win back respect for the barely credible legal system. Justice for the victims of human rights violations is a crucial issue in Chile, according to the Centre for Studying Contemporary Reality here.

In 1990, when an elected government replaced the military, the case was reopened. In November 1993, Judge Adolfo Banados condemned Contreras to seven years and Espinoza to six years in prison. The Supreme Court heard appeals in January 1995, and by last month, tensions were sharp. Rumors of troop movements and alerts flew around the country.

THE government has tried to reassure the Army that the Letelier decision won't bring more trials. Letelier's son, Juan Pablo, a member of the House of Deputies, has emphasized that only the two men, not the Army or Pinochet, have been convicted.

"Pinochet will kick over the game board if he feels like he's going to be affected," says Mr. Salazar.

As a gesture to the Army, the government is building a prison for convicted military officers. Of the estimated 200 people involved in human rights violations, 50 are on trial, but most will be amnestied. Only 23 face probable imprisonment.

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