Roberto Candia  /  AP
A police officer looks on Wednesday as people hold portraits of family members who were dissidents killed during the dictatorship of former Gen. Augusto Pinochet. They are demonstrting outside La Moneda government palace in Santiago, Chile. The Roman Catholic Church handed Chile's President Sebastian Pinera a petition for massive pardons that include military officials who committed crimes against humanity during Pinochet's dictatorship.
updated 7/21/2010 9:52:42 PM ET 2010-07-22T01:52:42

Chile's Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday urged President Sebastian Pinera to grant a sweeping pardon to aged and long-serving inmates — and the fact it would aid military officers who committed crimes against humanity has angered relatives of their victims.

Families of people who were slain or who vanished during Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship protested outside La Moneda palace as Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz and Monsignor Alejandro Goic, president of the Episcopal Conference, met with the president.

"Our proposal is not meant to open up wounds of the past, nor to make them heal by decree," Goic said of the plan, which is designed to mark Chile's 200-year independence celebrations Sept. 18 with a display of clemency.

But the wounds of the past remain bitter for many Chileans.

According to official statistics, 3,065 opponents of Pinochet's right-wing regime were killed and 1,200 more disappeared. Some 600 military personnel have been accused of crimes against humanity but no more than 150 are now in prison.

Sebastian Pinera, Francisco Javier Errazuriz, Cristian Larroulet
Roberto Candia  /  AP
Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, center, greets the Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, as Presidential Secretary Cristian Larroulet looks on Wednesday at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile. The Roman Catholic Church petitioned for massive pardons that include military officials who committed crimes against humanity during Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship from 1973 to 90.

Group opposes clemency
Mireya Garcia, vice president of the Group of Relatives of the Detainees and Disappeared, said those who commit crimes should serve their sentences. "Justice doesn't have to do with clemency but with what is fair," she told The Associated Press.

The church's proposed amnesty would apply to prisoners who are sick or older than 70 or those who have served half their sentence. Garcia's group says about 35 military personnel jailed for dictatorship-era "dirty war" crimes apparently would be eligible, though officials have not given an exact count.

The main opposition to the pardons for former military officials comes from left-center sectors who have a majority in the Congress, but some law-and-order members of Pinera's conservative bloc are also uneasy at the idea of seeming to go easy on convicts.

Pinera himself has sought to distance his brand of conservative politics from the far-right Pinochet dictatorship

Gen. Humberto Julio, president of an organization of retired military officials, praised the church proposal, saying it would help national reconciliation.

"It's incorrect to talk about impunity when the intention is to apply a sentence according to the age and health condition of prisoners," he said.

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