Last week saw the arrests of a total of 17 former Chilean army officers for two of the most resonant crimes committed during the Augusto Pinochet period: the brutal murder of Víctor Jara, a Chilean musician and communist sympathiser, and the burning of two activists.
Ten suspects have been charged with Jara's murder following testimony of a military whistleblower. Another seven have been charged with setting fire to the two activists, one of whom died, with the other left severely injured.
In 1973, Pinochet overthrew Chilean socialist President Salvador Allende, marking the beginning of a 17-year-long military dictatorship during which more than 3,000 people were killed and tens of thousands imprisoned and tortured.
Jara was one of the many victims taken prisoner in the National Stadium in Santiago where he was tortured, had his fingers removed and his body embedded with 44 bullets. The poet and singer was also a political activist that sided with the left-wing working class. Jara was seized shortly after the start of the coup and killed on September 16.
In 1986, 18 and 19-year-old Carmen Gloria Quintana and Rodrigo Rojas were beaten, drenched in petrol and set ablaze by military officers. Rojas died four days later, and Quintana was left disfigured and in need of crucial surgery. Both victims were political activists documenting strikes and protests against Pinochet's tyranny. The attack was covered up by the military and the pair were accused by Pinochet of burning themselves whilst making petrol bombs.
For nearly three decades a pact of silence among the soldiers of the Pinochet army has secured de facto impunity for the perpetrators. However, Fernando Guzmán, an 18-year-old soldier at the time, finally broke the pact in an attempt to bring justice to the victims and their families.
Quintana said to reporters:
I think this pact of silence breaking apart after so many years is a milestone for our country. It's a before and after in the struggle for human rights. From now on many more soldiers who are burdened by their conscience, will talk because they know what they did. They murdered and forcibly disappeared people.
Joan Turner Jara, widow of the singer called the new developments in her husband's case “a message of hope”:
Víctor’s case can serve as an example, so we’re pushing forward in demanding justice for Víctor with the hope that justice will follow for everyone.
People worldwide have taken to social media to comment on the charges.
Guardian reporter Jonathan Franklin writes:
10 Chilean Military Charged with Murder of folk singer Victor Jara….Chilean justice may be slow, but it's steady. pic.twitter.com/cgCuREr3Sc
— Jonathan Franklin (@FranklinBlog) July 23, 2015
Chilean Politician, María Antonieta Saa expressed her horror at events of the past:
Volver a ver en TV a Pinochet poner en duda el asesinato de Rodrigo Rojas De Negri es recordar con horror lo que vivimos. Verdad y Justicia
— antonietasaa (@antonietasaa) July 23, 2015
Seeing Pinochet back on TV casting doubt over the death of Rodrigo Rojas De Regri makes us remember with horror what we lived through. Truth and Justice.
As Joan Turner Jara noted, this could truly be a new chapter in the battle for justice for Pinochet's victims. The exposure of a cover up within the military may help uncover the truth about many other violations of human rights under Pinochet's regime.
According to official numbers, 40,018 people were victims of human rights abuses during the time the regime was in place while 3,065 were assassinated or went missing.
Pinochet's 17-year rule ended in a 1988 plebiscite, when 56% voted against him continuing as president leading to democratic elections to the Presidency and Congress. The former dictator was arrested under an international arrest warrant during a visit to London on October 10, 1998 in connection with numerous alleged human rights abuses. He returned to Chile in March 2000. In 2004, a Chilean judge ruled that Pinochet was medically fit to stand trial and placed him under house arrest.
Pinochet died on December 10, 2006 — ironically the International Day of Human Rights — having been hospitalized for a heart attack. He was never convicted of any of the roughly 300 criminal charges made against him which included tax evasion and embezzlement as well as human rights violations.