Chile's 9/11 - 40 years on from Pinochet's coup

Imagine getting home one day to find your house smashed up, your children locked in a room, your husband nowhere to be seen.

Imagine tanks rolling down your street, young soldiers looking out, eyes darting nervously, guns pointing at your neighbours as they scuttle inside to temporary safety, while buildings burn, spewing clouds of black smoke that billow into the sky and carry away your freedom, your safety, your dreams.

Imagine the city of Santiago, Chile, on 11th September 1973, exactly forty years ago today.

That was the day General Augusto Pinochet staged a bloody coup, ousting democratically elected President Salvador Allende. It was the day that marked the start of a brutal regime under which repression, torture, forced disappearances and state-sponsored murder would become rife. It was the day that put paid to the hopes of a generation.

Lelia Perez was 16 years old on the day of the coup. A secondary school student, she was arrested along with ten of her classmates and taken to a football stadium – the Estadio Chile – which would soon become a symbol of some of the worst excesses of Pinochet’s regime.

There, along with thousands of other detainees, Lelia was kept in the stands, her hands tied while soldiers pointed machine guns at them all. She soon discovered her fate – to be used as a guinea pig to help Pinochet’s security services hone their skills in torture.

“They would teach them how to interrogate, how to apply the electricity, where and for how long. When they were torturing me, I went into my own world - it was as if I was looking down on myself - like it wasn’t happening to me. It was brutal,” she told Amnesty.

Lelia was on one of many thousands tortured by Pinochet’s agents during his 16-year rule. According to official figures, nearly 40,000 people were illegally detained or tortured in Chile between 1973 and 1990. More than 3,000 people were murdered or disappeared. Their names were read out at a vigil outside the Chilean embassy in London today.

During those years, thousands of Chileans were forced into exile in neighbouring countries and across the globe. Many came to the UK. As time went on, opposition and resistance to Pinochet’s regime grew both in Chile and abroad.

‘Chile’ became an international cause supported by trade unions and human rights activists across the world. Much of that resistance was captured by award-winning photojournalist Julio Etchart, whose photographs are on display at Amnesty UK’s HQ in Shoreditch until Friday next week.

Pinochet’s regime came to an end when international and domestic pressure forced him to hold a referendum in October 1988 asking the population if they wanted him to continue in power. To his great surprise, they voted No.

But 40 years on from the coup, and nearly 15 years on from the referendum, many of those responsible for human rights abuses during Pinochet’s rule have still not been tried for their crimes. That means that thousands of torture survivors and victims’ relatives have yet to see justice.

Now, in a petition already signed by thousands of activists, Amnesty is calling on the Chilean authorities to put an end to all obstacles protecting the perpetrators of human rights violations in the country.

Obstacles like the amnesty law, which grants immunity from prosecution to all individuals who committed human rights violations between 11 September 1973 and 10 March 1978. And obstacles like the fact that military jurisdiction still applies to human rights violations committed by the military and security forces.

Some progress has been made – a number of cases of Pinochet-era human rights abuses have been transferred from military to civilian courts and some judicial decisions have circumvented the application of the amnesty law, allowing around 260 individuals to be sentenced.

But real action by the Chilean authorities is needed now to ensure that all past human rights abuses are invesitgated and their perpetrators held accountable.

Guadalupe Marengo, Deputy Director of Amnesty’s Americas programme, puts it well:

“It is mainly thanks to the continuous struggle of many of the victims and their families, and a few courageous prosecutors and judges, that some of those responsible for these crimes have been brought to justice. It is time for the authorities to introduce all reforms needed to guarantee that such grave violations never happen again.”

Only then will the thousands of survivors and victims, like Lelia Perez, see justice done.

NB: The Estadio Chile is now known as the Estadio Victor Jara after the celebrated folk singer who was imprisoned there.

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