Global Policy Forum

Judge Questions Pinochet About Killings Under His Rule


By Larry Rohter

New York Times
September 27, 2004

After lawyers for Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile's dictator from 1973 to 1990, failed to stave off an investigating judge's questions, the general was officially interrogated Saturday about his involvement in a coordinated effort by six South American military governments to hunt down and kill exiled political opponents in the 1970's. The judge, Juan Guzmán Tapia, was able to ask General Pinochet only 6 of the 14 questions he had prepared before the general, 88 and ailing, grew tired and the session was cut short. But the information he obtained is seen as increasing the likelihood that General Pinochet, whom the Chilean Supreme Court stripped of his immunity from prosecution in the case in August, will once again be indicted for human rights violations under his rule.

"I am quite satisfied," Judge Guzmán told reporters in Santiago, the Chilean capital. "General Pinochet's declaration lasted 20 or 30 minutes. I found him to be quite tired. He answered all of my questions directly. I would say that it was an encounter between gentlemen."

Both the questions put to General Pinochet, who seized power on Sept. 11, 1973, in an American-supported coup, and his responses are supposed to be kept secret. But accounts published in the Chilean press on Sunday, citing sources involved in the case, said that when he was asked about the deaths of 19 Chileans resulting from what was called Operation Condor, he responded that he had no knowledge of such "small stuff" because he was too busy running the country.

Operation Condor was conceived in Santiago in November 1975 at a meeting of state security and secret police chiefs of South American countries, with a second meeting there in June 1976 authorizing assassination missions. Besides Chile, the driving force behind the effort, the right-wing military governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay also took part in the secret death squad campaign.

The account attributed to General Pinochet would contradict that of Gen. Manuel Contreras, chief of the Chilean secret police, known by the Spanish acronym DINA, during the worst years of the dictatorship. General Contreras says he reported daily to General Pinochet about his agency's activities, a version of events that coincides with statements in United States intelligence documents of the time that have recently been declassified.

"Pinochet would meet Contreras every morning and drive to work with him and be briefed on what DINA was doing," said Peter Kornbluh, author of "The Pinochet File" and a researcher at the National Security Archive. "All the contemporary U.S. intelligence reports are clear and repetitive in saying that Pinochet was directly involved in and exercised clear authority over Chilean secret police operations, among which Condor was the most significant."

A Defense Intelligence Agency report from December 1975 that is quoted in Mr. Kornbluh's book, for example, reports a Chilean official as saying "the president issues instructions on DINA, is aware of its activities and in fact heads it." A United States Embassy cable two months earlier states that "DINA reports directly to Pinochet and is ultimately controlled by him alone."

Lawyers for General Pinochet described him as fatigued by the interrogation but cooperative. "In spite of his years and his health problems, my general was able to respond with all the dignity of a soldier, a man and a former president," Gustavo Collao Mira, one of General Pinochet's lawyers, told reporters.

Judge Guzmán first questioned General Pinochet in January 2001, in connection with another Chilean secret police action known as the Caravan of Death, in which 75 political prisoners disappeared and were shot to death. General Pinochet was placed under house arrest as a result, but the Chilean Supreme Court later ruled that he was unfit to stand trial because he suffered from mild senile dementia.

The interrogation on Saturday is a step required by Chilean law before Judge Guzmán, whose function is similar to that of a prosecutor, can announce a formal indictment of General Pinochet on charges connected with Operation Condor. It was made possible after the Supreme Court ruled Friday that General Pinochet should submit to questioning by Judge Guzmán, whom the general's lawyers wanted to see removed from the case. The new prosecution, however, is also likely to be challenged on medical grounds. Lawyers for General Pinochet, who suffers from diabetes and heart disease, said that he would undergo new medical examinations this week and that they would continue to seek to have the charges dropped because of his poor health.

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