Five jailed in Chile ten years after Pinochet arrest

Chile’s Supreme Court jailed five retired military officials on Wednesday for involvement in the “Caravan of Death” – one of the cases of military government-era killings for which the former President Augusto Pinochet was placed under house arrest ten years ago.

The “Caravan of Death” was a military delegation that travelled around northern and southern Chile by helicopter after Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, ordering the deaths of suspected political opponents.

Those jailed for between four and six years include Sergio Arellano Stark, who headed the delegation, a Supreme Court official said. He was jailed for six years.

Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London ten years ago on 16 October 1998. He was arrested on an extradition request from a Spanish judge after the relatives of thousands of victims submitted criminal complaints to Spanish courts, as well as the courts of other states. Subsequently, Belgium, France and Switzerland sought his extradition for crimes under international law.

During Augusto Pinochet’s presidency in Chile, more than 1,100 people were forcefully disappeared, more than 2,000 were extra-judicially executed or died under torture and over 20,000 were tortured over the nearly two decades of military rule in Chile under former President Pinochet.

Amnesty International was the first international non-governmental organization to alert governments to exercise their responsibilities under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment when it was known that former President Pinochet was visiting Europe in September 1998.

The organization mobilized its membership to put pressure on the United Kingdom government to allow his extradition. It also went to court with victims and other non-governmental organizations in the House of Lords to convince it that the United Kingdom was required to grant the extradition request, leading to an historic decision that a former head of state could be extradited to face trial on the basis of universal jurisdiction.

The case laid the foundations for universal jurisdiction to become a reality in practice and led to the arrest of former Chadian President Hissene Habré in Senegal, accused of committing torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity during his Presidency. It also paved the way for the fight in national courts against impunity at the highest level, such as the ongoing trial of former President Alberto Fujimori in Peru.   

Amnesty International, however, has said that although the Pinochet case sent a powerful warning to human rights abusers around the world, the rule of universal jurisdiction – under which he was detained – is at risk.

“The detention of Augusto Pinochet heralded a turning point in the practice of universal jurisdiction by recognizing that heads of state are not above the law and could be arrested and tried in foreign courts for crimes committed in their own country,” said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International.   

“Ten years later, there remains a great deal to be done to fulfil the hope for justice created by the arrest of Pinochet. Thousands of perpetrators of crimes under international law are still at large, avoiding justice in safe havens around the world.”

Amnesty International has condemned the current failure to use universal jurisdiction to enforce international law when states where the crimes took place fail to investigate or prosecute.  With only a small number of cases arrested and prosecuted since the landmark moment of Pinochet’s arrest, Amnesty International is calling for the adoption of effective laws that provide for universal jurisdiction and enable police and prosecutors to fulfil their duty.

In connection to this, Amnesty International is publishing today two papers, one on Germany and the other on Spain. They are the first of 192 such tools for justice in its No safe haven series designed to help lawyers for victims to identify states where universal jurisdiction cases might be brought and to enable civil society to press for reform of national law and practice to make universal jurisdiction effective.

The practice of international justice is also under attack on the International Criminal Court for trying to reach the topmost levels of the government in Sudan. Further damage could be done if the campaign being led by Rwanda calling for the UN General Assembly to condemn “abuses” of universal jurisdiction by foreign judges seeking to prosecute crimes committed in that country were to be successful.    

“This is a time to remember the remarkable achievement of the relatives of Pinochet’s victims whose tireless efforts led to his arrest in 1998, under universal jurisdiction,” said Irene Khan. “This achievement set a precedent that the international community has a duty to build on, arresting and trying or extraditing people suspected of crimes under international law.”