Chile Rejects Church Call to Pardon Pinochet’s Military Officials

" ... The general pardon would have affected more than 60 people currently serving prison sentences for human rights violations during General Pinochet’s 17-year military government, most of whom are in a modern, comfortable prison built especially for them in 1995. More than 780 civilians and members of the military have been indicted, 210 of whom have been convicted ... "

By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
New York Times | July 25, 2010

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s president, abruptly rejected calls on Sunday from the Roman Catholic Church to pardon dozens of imprisoned military officials convicted of human rights violations during the era known as Chile’s dirty war.

Mr. Piñera, Chile’s first right-wing leader since the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet ended two decades ago, had promised during his campaign last year to crack down on crime and have a “zero tolerance” policy toward criminal offenders.

On Sunday he put an end to months of mounting pressure from the Catholic Church and some in the country’s right-wing establishment to make a grand healing gesture to the country by issuing sweeping pardons.

“While we value the debate generated by these proposals, we cannot ignore that they continue to produce a climate of tension and division in Chilean society that many times reopens the old wounds and bitterness of the past,” Mr. Piñera said in a televised address from the presidential palace in Santiago.

Standing up to Chile’s Catholic Church was seen as a bold move, considering the church’s well-acknowledged role in challenging the military dictatorship of General Pinochet and in harboring many human rights victims and people sought by the military.

But the church’s reputation has been tarnished recently by revelations of sexual abuse by priests in Chile.

The general pardon would have affected more than 60 people currently serving prison sentences for human rights violations during General Pinochet’s 17-year military government, most of whom are in a modern, comfortable prison built especially for them in 1995. More than 780 civilians and members of the military have been indicted, 210 of whom have been convicted, according to Agrupación de Familiares de Ejecutados Políticos, a Chilean human rights group. More than 780 civilians and members of the military have been indicted, 210 of whom have been convicted, according to Agrupación de Familiares de Ejecutados Políticos, a Chilean human rights group.

José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, applauded Mr. Piñera’s decision, saying that the country was not ready to forgive the atrocities committed by military officials.

“The Catholic Church has not sufficiently explained its reasons for this proposal,” Mr. Vivanco said. “Reconciliation is not good enough. The Catholic Church has to communicate much more powerful reasons for moving in the direction of special treatment of perpetrators of atrocities in Chile.”

Mr. Piñera said the time for a general pardon was not right, noting that the government had issued three pardons in the past decade. He said his government would consider pardons on a case-by-case basis in the future.

More than freeing prisoners as a way to improve prison conditions, the president pledged that his government would improve prison facilities and conditions, and build more jails.

Despite the rejection, the church reacted positively Sunday. Monsignor Alejandro Goic, president of the Bishops Conference, said on television that the president’s announcement reflected the church’s proposal in terms of improving the prison system and deciding on pardons on a case-by-case basis.

“We are satisfied that this issue has become part of the national agenda,” he said.

Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/world/americas/26chile.html