Human rights lawyers today launched historic talks with representatives of the Chilean armed forces with the goal of uncovering information about the deaths and disappearances of more than 3,000 people during Augusto Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship.
After a 40-minute discussion, the sides agreed only to continue conversations in two weeks. But the meeting marked the first face-to-face dialogue between the military and human rights attorneys investigating Chile's "Dirty War" against dissidents and citizens during the 1970s and '80s. The authorities hope the talks will lead to the establishment of a truth commission, perhaps similar to the one formed in South Africa to investigate but not prosecute crimes committed during apartheid in an attempt at national reconciliation.
"This is the start of a great process of healing for us," said Defense Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma, part of the new civilian government that took over after democracy was restored in 1990. Perez initiated today's talks, which included church leaders and government officials. "Our national soul remains divided . . . and in this way, our society has finally chosen to look for a solution to unite us as a nation once and for all," he said.
The talks come as the Chilean military, which has long resisted assigning responsibility to individual military officers in the Dirty War, is facing increasing pressure to release information on the "disappeared" to their relatives, many of whom have never been officially notified of their loved ones' deaths.
The unprecedented meeting came on the heels of Pinochet's arrest last October in London, which put his regime's atrocities in the spotlight. Pinochet, who stepped down as president in 1990 and retired as head of the army in 1998, is under house arrest in advance of an extradition hearing next month. A Spanish judge wants to try him in Madrid in connection with crimes committed during the dictatorship, including the deaths of several Spanish citizens.
While Pinochet has been fighting a legal battle in Europe, the Chilean military has faced its own new legal pressures at home. A ruling by the Chilean Supreme Court in June punched a loophole through the amnesty laws that have largely protected officers from prosecution--and authorities have issued arrest orders for five retired military officials. Three have been detained, one is in jail and the fifth is in a witness protection program after testifying in the case of Orlando Letelier, the Chilean dissident and former diplomat killed by a car bomb in Washington in 1976.
The developments have forced the army to the negotiating table, analysts say. However, even as the talks are being launched, the army's new commander, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, has sent mixed signals about his long-term willingness to cooperate, saying the military can provide little information.
In response, the largest organization of families of the disappeared in Chile has boycotted the talks because it says the military is trying only to improve its image.
"There is no sense of remorse and no sense that the military is trying to do anything but help themselves with a little public relations," said Viviana Diaz, president of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared, whose father was killed during the Pinochet regime. "For that reason, we refuse to talk with them until they are willing to be upfront about what happened during those years."