IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Tortured Chileans gain compensation

Decades after being imprisoned and tortured under the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, some 27,000 Chileans will finally get government compensation.
Former political prisoners and their relatives hold pictures of alleged torturers during a Monday demonstration in front of the presidential palace of La Moneda in Santiago, Chile.
Former political prisoners and their relatives hold pictures of alleged torturers during a Monday demonstration in front of the presidential palace of La Moneda in Santiago, Chile.Santiago Llanquin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three decades after being imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Mireya Garcia is among 27,000 Chileans who will finally get government compensation.

“It’s very special for us, who were kept anonymous for almost 31 years, that the state admits that we were tortured,” Garcia told The Associated Press Monday. “Telling the nation that we were tortured is the first act of reparation. Little by little, this begins to be a healing process.”

While the payments are small — about $190 a month — they will double the pensions of many former victims. In addition, victims and their relatives will receive free education, housing and health benefits. The program, which still must be approved by Congress, will cost the government some $70 million a year.

Still, Garcia and other victims said monetary compensation was not enough, and the accused torturers should be punished.

President Ricardo Lagos announced the plan Sunday following the release of a gruesome report on torture during Pinochet’s 1973-90 regime prepared by a commission that heard testimony from more than 35,000 people.

How can we explain such horror?’
The report described the main torture methods used at 1,131 detention centers established throughout the country after Pinochet seized power in a bloody coup. He launched a fierce repression against suspected leftist dissidents that included beatings, electric shocks, sexual abuse, simulated firing squads and forcing people to watch relatives be tortured.

“How can we explain such horror?” Lagos asked in a nationally televised address Sunday night. “I do not have an answer.”

Garcia, who became a human rights activist after her release from prison, said there is still a long way to go.

“For the reparation process to be complete, the report should not be just put on the Internet, but printed and sent to all schools in Chile, to all public libraries,” she said.

“We also want a memorial to the victims and a monument with the motto ‘Never again torture in Chile.”’

Garcia, whose brother is among 1,200 dissidents who remain unaccounted for after being arrested by Pinochet’s security services, was imprisoned for nine months on Quiriquina island in southern Chile and at a nearby prison. Like most victims, she would not discuss the torture she was subjected to. “But it was bad,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.

For some, it’s not enough
Other victims were even less satisfied with the government’s offer.

Jorge Saez, now 51, was a communist activist and university student in northern Chile when he was arrested in 1974. He said he was repeatedly tortured, then forced into exile. He returned to Chile in 1986.

“I feel a tremendous frustration after hearing the president and his proposal,” he said. “Not because of the money, but because we heard nothing about justice, about punishing the torturers, about making sure this will never happen in Chile again.”

Julio Aranguiz, now 53, another former political prisoner, called the proposed compensation “miserable” and the presidential speech “a step toward impunity.”

“Where are the torturers?” he asked.

The positive side, he said, “is that a debate has been opened on a subject that was hidden under the carpet for so long.”

A debate was indeed growing, with retired military officers calling the report biased and unilateral, and right-wing politicians who worked with Pinochet being challenged to assume their responsibilities in the abuses.

Also, some victims rejected the compensation offer as too small. Pinochet, by contrast, receives a monthly pension estimated at more than $2,000. Pinochet, now 89, faces ongoing court battles for suits stemming from human rights violations, but doctors are split on whether he is healthy enough for trial.

No identities
Retired army Gen. Guillermo Garin, a spokesman for Pinochet, complained the report does not identify the victims or their torturers, who he maintained were a small minority.

“That leaves us all as suspects,” he said. “That is a mistake because 99.9 percent of my comrades in arms did not participate in those acts.”

Right-wing politicians who collaborated with Pinochet rejected calls to assume responsibility for the abuses but offered support for the compensation proposed by Lagos.

The report on torture was the second to be compiled since the restoration of civilian rule in 1990. A 1991 examination focused on the abductions and deaths of dissidents, stating that 3,197 people died for political reasons during the Pinochet regime.