Roger Plant joined Amnesty International in 1972 to cover the organization’s work on Latin America. A few months after Pinochet took power by force, he went to Chile to document the arbitrary detentions, torture and disappearances. The result was a groundbreaking report that helped shine a light on the reality of life in the Latin-American country.
As a young researcher, Roger Plant had only been working for Amnesty International for less than a year when Augusto Pinochet launched his coupe d’état in 1973. With his feet barely under the desk it was a baptism of fire - a seminal moment that would eventually define his career.
A few months later, he was sat on a plane at London’s Heathrow airport bound for Santiago de Chile via New York. Following a phone conversation with Amnesty International’s General Secretary, the late Martin Ennals, he was still unsure if he would be allowed into the country.
This was the first visit to monitor the illegal detentions, torture and disappearances that were taking place in the Latin-American country under General Pinochet’s brutal regime.
Entering unfriendly territory
But entering a country in the midst of a human rights crisis, as thousands of social activists, dissidents, teachers, lawyers and trade unionists were being rounded up, detained, tortured and disappeared was no simple task.
As part of a team of three, Roger crossed Santiago’s airport doors with Frank Newman, a law professor in the University of California, and Judge Bruce Sandler, presiding Judge of the Supreme Court of Orange County, California.
While the Chilean authorities had agreed to the visit, it was to be strictly controlled. The security services would try to prevent the team from gaining access to the very places that they wanted to see. Those centres that would later become renowned for the abuses that defined Pinochet’s 17 year rule. Roger and his colleagues gave their minders the slip.
“They tried very hard not to let us go. We [were] ‘guided’ by some Chilean government officials but I remember getting away from them and being able talk to some of the political prisoners. It was a very strange situation. On the one hand, there can be a great deal of control, but on the other there can be a certain amount of chaos in a situation like that.
Victims and abusers Over an eight day visit, the Amnesty International delegates met with dozens of torture survivors, relatives of activists who had been detained, and even government officials who tried to justify the abuses that were taking place.
The accounts they received from activists and government representatives were completely opposed.
The report Roger returned to London after eight days in Chile to write one of the first reports that documented the shocking abuses taking place under Pinochet’s rule.
The document included dozens of testimonies of arbitrary detentions, torture and disappearances and sparked a global call for action. It catapulted an international campaign to help those at risk.