By Maxine Lowy
“Surely you exaggerate. How can it be that bad?” 1
In response to Chilean judges’ ostensible disbelief that torture had become routine after September 11, 1973, the day that has left the nation scarred 50 years later, fifty people who had endured it came before the Supreme Court so that the honorable magistrates could see them with their own eyes.
It was January 1974 and attorney Andrés Aylwin (1925-2018), who had been a congressman until Congress was shut down after the military coup, wanted the judges to grasp the consequences of their denials of habeas corpus petitions that described abuses prisoners were enduring. 2 Nonetheless, the judges were unmoved.
Since late September 1973, just 10 days after the coup, Aylwin’s small office with the help of recent law school graduates, had been filing habeas corpus petitions to protect people arbitrarily arrested. Through them, judges learned early on that torture was being practiced.
Most people who regained their freedom did not want any contact with a lawyer, reluctant to say a word about what they had experienced.
Silence and social immobilization were the first public expressions of torture. Dictators the world over employ torture as a mechanism to control not only individual people, whose bodies are subjected to painful torment, but also the society as a whole. Survivors make apparent the dangers of opposing the regime, thus ensuring a submissive population.
“You deduced that either these people had witnessed or personally had been terribly abused, leaving them terrorized,” stated Andrés Aylwin to this journalist in 2005. “Many people began to fear torture more than death. People were aware that, if arrested, you would likely be tortured. At first, what mothers feared most was that their sons would be tortured. They would say to me, ‘I don’t want my son to come home blinded, to come home broken.’ You heard that from day one.”
In 1973 and 1974, Aylwin and other lawyers tried to defend people accused by War Councils, summary kangaroo courts comprised of military judges who issued high sentences, deciding in brief time the fate of hundreds of people, while denying giving them adequate defense. Although the lawyers were allotted little time to meet with the defendant, the aftermath of torture was often evident: injuries, bruises, a broken arm or they were simply terribly frightened. Frequently, the prisoner was reluctant to admit having been tortured and even less willing to denounce it: after all he or she was still in prison.
Later, the motions filed by the Pro Paz Committee and the Vicariate of Solidarity 3 denounced “undue violence” or “unlawful coercion,” legal euphemisms for torture. Human rights lawyers continued to file habeas corpus petitions and the courts continued to deny more than 5,000.
Beginning in 1974 and until the late 1980s, every year the United Nations issued a report about human rights in Chile, with a chapter on the subject of torture. On March 1, 1975, after yet another UN resolution condemning human rights violations in Chile, the Supreme Court president Enrique Urrutia Manzano came out in defense of the military regime. “As for torture and other atrocities, I can say that there are no firing squads or iron curtains here, and any affirmation to the contrary is due to a press that promotes ideas that will not prosper in our country,” noted Urrutia.
At the time of the military coup, it was a crime to commit “apremios ilegítimos” (unlawful coercion) in Chile. Articles 145 and 150 of the Military Justice Code call for prison sentences for officials who hold a prisoner incomunicado during an extensive period of time, leaving them vulnerable to abuse. It also calls for punishment for military officers who torture or exercise undue force. Torture was also codified as a crime in Chile’s Penal Code. Moreover, the Nuremburg Court Statutes, ratified by Chile in 1950, prohibit torture under the principle of jus cogens, a norm so fundamental that is cannot be ignored by any State.
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel or Degrading Treatment was actually ratified in 1988, by the dictatorship headed by Augusto Pinochet.
The 1991 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (also known as Rettig Commission) describes the systematic practice of torture among methods of repression. However, the handful of cases it documents of people who died as a result of torture fall way short of showing the magnitude and commonplace it became. These cases and many more came to light due to testimony from former political prisoners who shared captivity with others who did not survive.
At first, the former political prisoners discounted importance of their personal experiences, even though they had suffered similar abuses as those who were forcibly disappeared or summarily executed. Their depositions did not describe their own stories, rather, they declared as witnesses to a fellow prisoner with whom they shared a prison cell, or whose voice or scream they heard, someone who was not seen again alive. A long process emerged until former political prisoners became aware of their own condition, culminating with the creation of the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, also known as the Valech Commission for the priest who presided it. In large measure, this achievement was due to pressure from former political prisoners and the civil society organization Ethic Committee against Torture (CECT) in particular. On June 26 2003, CECT members accompanied by the former Lutheran bishop Helmut Frenz and Frode Nilsen, former Norwegian Ambassador to Chile, formally requested that the government of Ricardo Lagos create an entity to recognize survivors of torture.
In November 2004 the Valech Commission publicly presented its findings that documented more than 30,000 harrowing first-hand accounts of torture. It concluded that the infliction of pain for the purpose of politically motivated cruelty was a systematic, permanent and massive practice during the 17 years of dictatorship. Some magistrates and some political figures who collaborated with the dictatorship affirmed they had been unaware of such practice prior to the report’s publishing. However, as Andrés Aylwin indicated, they had many opportunities to learn that torture was exercised since the first day of the dictatorship.
Less than a year later, in March 2005, Santiago Court of Appeals Judge Alejandro Solís issued the first indictments for the crime of torture on behalf of 19 survivors of the Tejas Verde prison camp. In june of the same year, Solís issued a second series of indictments on behalf of 23 survivors of the clandestine Villa Grimaldi detention and extermination center. Both sets of indictments described hangings, electric shocks, beatings, sleep privation and other inhuman practices that were commonly exercised in concentration camps and secret prisons that operated throughout the country after the military coup.
On September 5, when President Gabriel Boric proposed a law to lift (with the deponent’s authorization) the 50-year secrecy imposed on the Valech Commission’s sworn statements an important step was taken towards recognition of what was once an open secret.
Juanita Aguilera, CECT coordinator, was one of thousands who came forth to the Valech Commission to testify what she endured as a political prisoner. 4 “No law has ever gagged us. Those of us who survived state terrorism have testified everywhere and our demands have always been public. The secret mostly protects those who applied torment who have never admitted their past criminal deeds.” Aguilera adds, “The challenge of these 50 years is to formulate public policy for tomorrow to create a culture that respects and actively promotes human rights. Our deepest hope is that human rights may transcend the realm of the victims and the perpetrators to become installed within the hearts of the people, willing to prevent state violence of any kind that violates our basic rights and well-being.”
1 Sergio Corvalán, attorney with the Vicaría de la Solidaridad and a Rettig Commission staff, Interview in July 2005
2 Interview with Andrés Aylwin Azocar, July 2005
3 Less than a month after the coup, Catholic Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez convened interfaith clergy to create the first human rights protection entity, the Comité Pro Paz. After the dictatorship obligated it to close, in 1975 the
Vicariate of Solidarity was founded, also under the wing of the Catholic Church to protect victims and their families, document the atrocities, and denounce human rights violations.
4 Conversation with Juanita Aguilera Jaramillo, September 2023.