Chile criminalizes torture decades after end of dictatorship

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet receiving honors from the Palace Guard earlier this month. (Credit: Ministerio Secretaría General de Gobierno/Flickr)

Chile has approved a law that classifies torture and degrading treatment as criminal offenses, something the current constitution – which dates back to the country’s dictatorship that ended in 1988 – did not include.

The law aims to punish people in public service positions – both public and private employees – who instigate, carry out or hide knowledge of torture, said Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who signed the law on Friday at La Moneda Palace in Santiago.

Sentences under the new law include up to 10 years in prison for torture, a minimum of 40 years in prison for murder or rape, and five years in prison for cruel or degrading treatment that doesn’t rise to the level of torture.

“Today we take a decisive step in the prevention and final eradication of torture in our country,” said Bachelet.

Trials without justice

Previously, anyone is a public service position who committed a human rights violation would be tried in the military courts. Human rights groups have denounced the use of military courts, charging that it is inhumane and shows partiality to public service officers who were rarely convicted.

According to Amnesty International, which obtained data from one of the six military courts, only 0.3 percent of the reported cases of police abuse against civilian demonstrators in 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2014 were subject to criminal proceedings.

On the rare occasions investigations were opened, Amnesty said, sentences were notoriously light and officers were seldom sent to prison.

“Chile’s military courts should not be allowed to investigate, prosecute and punish members of its own ranks – that is simply a no-brainer,” said Ana Piquer, director at Amnesty International Chile, in a press release earlier this year. “It is akin to courts allowing criminals to be judged by their own families.”

While some applaud the new law for taking the proceedings out of the military courts, some human rights groups have expressed concern that the law maintains a distance between public service personnel from the rest of Chilean society. Human rights abuses will remain a threat, they say, until the two are more fully assimilated.

Cracking down on impunity

Since the restoration of democracy in 1988, Chile has repeatedly tried to investigate torture committed during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and to advance reparations for the victims. During Pinochet’s 17-year rule, it is estimated that more than 3,000 were ordered killed, and 27,000 were captured and tortured.

Many Chileans applaud the new law as an important step toward justice and reform. Women’s rights groups, in particular, have praised the new law for its creation of a separate criminal definition for psychological and sexual violence. This clause of the law, Bachelet explained, is part of a renewed effort to ensure that sexual violence against women is not normalized and to draw greater visibility to such crimes.

Bachelet cited the case of Lorenza Cayuhan, an imprisoned Mapuche Indian activist who gave birth in prison last month. Three prison guards were present in the delivery room, according to several media reports, even though Cayuhan had her feet in shackles and was fully anesthetized after doctors decided to perform a cesarian.

“This situation must be investigated in depth,” said Bachelet, adding that new prison regulations would ensure that inmates be treated with dignity.

Pinochet died in 2006 without ever being prosecuted for the cases of forced disappearance, torture, rape and murder under his command. He was protected by an immunity clause added to the constitution that was approved during his rule.

Bachelet and her mother were detained and abused under the dictatorship, and Bachelet’s father, an air force general, was tortured to death for opposing the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com