In recent months, Latin America has made significant progress in
the struggle to redress the human rights abuses committed during the
dictatorships of the 1970s and '80s, say experts.
Chile is the latest domino, as its Supreme Court began hearings
this week in a historic appeal of an amnesty law decreed by the
country's one-time strongman, former Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
The 1978 decree has shielded military and police from prosecution
for murders or torture committed during the worst years of
repression after Mr. Pinochet's 1973 coup. An estimated 3,200
Chileans were killed, or disappeared after being detained, in a
widespread campaign to root out Pinochet's opposition.
Pinochet has long been seen as an untouchable in Chile. But in
1998, a Spanish judge used international instruments to argue for
Pinochet's extradition from London. He was eventually returned to
Chile though he has yet to stand trial, in part because of his
Roberto Garreton, regional representative for Latin America for
the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, says Pinochet's arrest
in London was nevertheless a watershed.
"That arrest had a fantastic effect," he says. "This was
unthinkable 20 years ago, but in Chile, there are now 300 military
officials with cases pending a resolution of the amnesty appeal,
which should happen any day now." Mr. Garreton says it was a
breakthrough not only for judges in Chile, but across the region.
"There is evidence of a consolidated advance across the region,"
he says. "If we win the amnesty appeal in Chile, it will widen a
door that has been opened by the decision in Argentina."
Two weeks ago, Argentina's Supreme Court rejected its own
amnesty. The court declared that crimes against humanity can never
be prescribed. "It's an important precedent for the region," says
Francisco Bravo, one of the lawyers leading Chile's amnesty appeal.
"It's hard to tell what impact it will have here, since our court is
pretty guarded in its jurisprudence. We'll soon see what signal it
The advances in Chilean and Argentine courts have mirrored
developments elsewhere. In Mexico, a special prosecutor filed
charges against former Mexican President Luis Echeverria and 11
other officials in July. The charges were in connection with the
1971 "Corpus Christi massacre," in which police and paramilitary
forces are alleged to have killed at least 30 student protesters in
Mexico City. …