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The Vatican’s monumental blunder on Pinochet

“We have been calling for his arrest for 20 years.“ -- Amnesty International

Intended or not, the Vatican, citing the need for “national reconciliation,” has sent out a signal to Latin America and beyond of its willingness to side with one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators and against the overwhelming judgment of human rights organizations.

“The Holy See supports national reconciliation everywhere, including Chile,” Vatican spokesman Joachim Navarro-Valls said late last month, explaining why the Vatican had requested British authorities to allow Gen. Augusto Pinochet to return to Chile.

The request is a monumental blunder for the Catholic church.

As news of the Vatican intervention spread, human rights advocates throughout the world expressed outrage. They and others saw in the Vatican move the re-emergence of a church out of touch with the aspirations of its people while acting to maintain ties with a powerful elite.

For example, Chilean public opinion surveys published last year revealed that a significant majority of the population favored both continued investigation into human rights violations and continued prosecutions of those responsible for the violations.

Moreover, the Vatican’s request stands as contrary to the theology of reconciliation. Catholic teaching on forgiveness holds that it becomes possible only after confession of wrongdoing and a sincere resolve to amend one’s ways.

Pinochet, to the contrary, has not admitted any wrong and has thwarted every effort to establish the truth of the atrocities for which he is now being held accountable.

It is difficult to fathom why the pope would lobby on behalf of Pinochet’s return to Chile except as an unwise response to pressures from the privileged elite, including conservative Latin American bishops.

Earlier this month Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed that “a senior level” official at the Vatican had intervened on behalf of Pinochet, who is under armed guard at a rented mansion southwest of London. He is there awaiting a judgment from the House of Lords on whether he is immune from arrest and extradition to Spain to face allegations of human rights crimes.

Pinochet was arrested Oct. 16 in London on a Spanish warrant alleging that he ordered killings, torture and hostage-taking during his 17-year rule in Chile, which began with a 1973 coup.

An official Chilean report says 3,197 people were killed or disappeared at the hands of the secret police during Pinochet’s rule.

The warrant was taken for acts committed against Spaniards, a development which most Chileans consider ironic in so far as the former dictator committed crimes against thousands of fellow Chileans.

On Sept. 11, 1973, the four branches of Chile’s armed forces, led by its army commander-in-chief, Gen. Pinochet, overthrew the government of Salvador Allende in a violent coup and put an end to a tradition of constitutional rule in the country. Allende organized resistance to the assault and died in the presidential palace.

The military junta assumed power, placed Pinochet in the presidency and set off 17 years of military rule in Chile.

In 1980, Pinochet’s government drafted a new constitution for Chile. It placed Pinochet in office and provided for the gradual return to a democratic government, restoring a limited, appointed, National Congress in 1990 and an elected president in 1997. It also aimed to protect Pinochet permanently from prosecution for his crimes by establishing a new status — “senator for life” -- for ex-presidents who had served more than six years.

Much of the debate on investigations into Chilean human rights violations has focused on the interpretation and application of Chile’s 1978 Amnesty Law. This law, imposed by decree during military rule, prevented prosecution of individuals implicated in certain criminal acts committed between Sept. 11, 1973, and March 10, 1978, the first period of Pinochet rule, when a state of siege was in force and repression was harshest.

Amnesty International has argued that both the 1978 Amnesty Law and the way it has been applied are contrary to international human rights standards and has consistently called for it to be repealed.

The three elements in the internationally recognized right of effective remedy for human rights violations are truth, justice and compensation. None is possible as long as Pinochet and others like him know they can commit human rights offenses and then pass laws to permanently protect themselves from the consequences of their crimes.

The Chileans who suffered under Pinochet’s cruelty know this, human rights advocates know this, common sense makes it clear. What a shame the Vatican does not seem to grasp the point.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999