At the end of 1976, during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), a case of human rights violations had a particular impact on Chilean society. The military regime that overthrew the socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-1973) with the coup d’état of September 11, 1973, of which Chile commemorates 50 years this Monday, detained 11 members of the clandestine leadership of the Communist Party and two militants of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), of the extreme left. Among the detainees was Reinalda Pereira, five months pregnant. She lost track of her fate and that of others. Several of them are still missing.
The cause that arose from these events, known as the case of the 13, became one of the most emblematic of the Pinochet dictatorship. Not only because of its brutality, but also because it made it possible to identify for the first time the systematic method of State repression and led, in 1986, to the prosecution of 40 officers from different branches of the Armed Forces. Among them, the former Air Force general and member of the coup junta, Gustavo Leigh.
The person who issued the prosecutions was Judge Carlos Cerda (80 years old, Santiago), known in the South American country for being one of the few members of the Judiciary who dared to investigate the torture, execution and disappearance of people during the dictatorship. In Chile, after the coup, more than 27,000 people were victims of arrests and arrests, and 1,469 were disappeared.
With doctorates from the Universities of Louvain (Switzerland) and the Sorbonne (Paris), Cerda was harshly punished by his superiors for refusing to close human rights cases: it took more than 30 years to be appointed minister of the Supreme Court, in 2014. But in 2018, when he retired, he withdrew from the courthouse to applause for his courage and his contribution to the law. Among other things, he was the judge who managed to twist the hand of the Amnesty Law adopted in 1978 that guaranteed the immunity of the guilty. And in 2007, already in democracy, he ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet’s family – including his wife Lucía Hiriart – within the framework of the so-called Riggs case, which investigated the embezzlement of public funds carried out by the dictator in the 17 years of his rule. regime.
Today, this warm-hearted man who once wanted to be a priest lives in a country house surrounded by almond trees, on the outskirts of Santiago. He has had serious health problems that make it difficult for him to express himself, but he remains attentive to national affairs and has not lost his intellectual acuity. A few days before the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup, sitting under a tree in his garden, he says that despite the efforts, Chilean society is still far from paying off its debt to the victims of the dictatorship and calls on the State to review the files in detail to get new data. He also calls on you to be firmer with those who might have information.
“The Armed Forces have not wanted to reveal the truth, therefore I believe that the method is to force them to deliver all the information. They are part of the State, they have an obligation to do so and if it is not possible, you have to go to the International Criminal Court. In matters against humanity, there is no amnesty or prescription possible,” he says, before highlighting that investigations should also focus on civilians who participated in crimes of this type.
”They are as guilty as the military, because the complicity to this day is impressive, and we have not acted against it with the rigor that the circumstances demand,” he says.
The loneliness of a judge
The day of the coup, Cerda left her home early in the eastern sector of the Chilean capital. He lived near the residence of Salvador Allende that was attacked on Tomás Moro street, in the municipality of Las Condes, and he heard the roar of the bombs falling on it. Alarmed, he left for the Palace of Justice, where he was then relator of the Santiago Court of Appeals. He met a hundred officials, but the soldiers quickly forced them to leave with a white handkerchief in their hands, put them on buses and took them to a downtown square, where they kept them lying with their faces against the cobblestones for several hours. . Then, they took some without Cerda knowing why, and left the rest at their homes.
“You could feel the gunshots and there was an atmosphere of tension, but no one foresaw what would happen, that the people who were taken away could be disappeared,” he says.
It wouldn’t take long for him to become aware of reality. Relatives of detainees constantly came to the Court to present appeals for amparo. An office was even opened to receive them. And every day, Cerda saw how they refused to give them information. “An appeal for protection was received in the first instance from the Court of Appeals, the report was requested from the Ministry of the Interior, and it almost automatically responded with one line: there is no information. Like this, every day,” she remembers.
Between 1973 and 1983, 5,400 habeas corpus were presented in Chile, of which only 10 were accepted. When asked how he sees the new stage that Chilean justice began with the coup, when 50 years have passed since then, he describes the coup as “an absolute breakdown of the rule of law.” “In the Judiciary there was a clear position against anything that was not a dictatorship. The ministers of the Supreme Court had an ideological identification with General Augusto Pinochet and the entire government of him, and they were iron to maintain discipline. So, there was a general fear that was internalized in the institution and the judges became docile to the hierarchy. Courage was lacking, the judge was subdued and that institutionally meant meekness. That’s where I was left alone, with a few people,” he recalls.
In 1973, Cerda was not yet a judge, but he met with some magistrates who shared his concerns in clandestine meetings in which they let off steam and looked for ways to adapt to the circumstances. Once appointed Minister of the Court of Appeals, his commitment to justice was even greater.
Carlos Cerda.Cristobal Venegas (© CRISTOBAL VENEGAS)
“The impression I had was that I had to be a judge more than ever, because what a judge has to do is protect the person and their essential rights. I never had a doubt, whatever the risk, ”he says.
And there were risks.
It was in 1983, by chance, that the case of the 13 fell into the hands of Cerda. His predecessors had left the case uninvestigated and, in an attempt to close the case, had presented immigration certificates that supposedly proved that the detainees had left for Argentina. The first thing the judge did was go personally to the different train stations that led to the border crossing through which it was said they had left to review the route sheets; He noticed that the names did not appear. He then prosecuted four detectives for falsifying public documents, although the Court of Appeals annulled the arrest warrant.
“Justice in Chile was totally intervened,” he says.
But he continued and thus discovered the existence of a clandestine intelligence group called Joint Command, which included, among others, members of the Air Force, Carabineros, and civilians from the far-right movement Patria y Libertad. The group was responsible for the disappearance of more than 30 people and had several torture centers.
In 1986, Cerda ordered the prosecution of 40 people, the vast majority from the Armed Forces, for unlawful deprivation of liberty and illicit association. To achieve this he had carried out hundreds of interrogations of more than 100 people, not without costs. They put crude obstacles in his way, like when he had to interrogate a general in a military compound and they made them evacuate because of a bomb alert. On different occasions, they entered and searched his office and his house. He received threatening phone calls; They followed him and photographed him; and they even put a bomb in his car, which luckily exploded one day when he didn’t use it at the time he used to. In those years, he changed actuaries twice, realizing that data from his investigation was being leaked to the high command of the Armed Forces. When he finally found a trustworthy person, they threatened to kidnap her and her mother-in-law had to hide her in her house.
No to the Amnesty Law
After the prosecution of the 40 uniformed officers, branches of the Armed Forces sought to stop Cerda’s advances. To do so, the Supreme Court ordered him to dismiss the case by applying the Amnesty Law promoted by the dictatorship, which granted immunity to all people involved in crimes between September 11, 1973 and March 1978. But the judge refused to comply, arguing that amnesty was against the Code of Criminal Procedure, which indicated that a case could not be closed until the investigation was exhausted. Until 1998, when it ceased to be applied, this argument was used repeatedly by human rights lawyers.
The Supreme Court did not tolerate Cerda’s rebellion. He suspended him for several months and cut his salary in half. The judge, who has seven children, stood his ground. They then tried to expel him. He was saved thanks to an invitation from Harvard University to spend time doing research on his campus. Even so, his career was cut short.
“The Senate of the Republic, the Parliament, did not accept that I reach the Supreme Court before, which meant that I did not become president either. I wanted to contribute to better justice; that is the great task. And of course, that was cut,” he says.
The judge answers the question of whether he expected more from the Judiciary with the end of the dictatorship, recalling how “the dictator was kept as a designated senator and the same ministers remained. At the same time, (some judges) understood that the investigation for human rights violations had to be generalized. When through (the replacement) of ministers there began to be resolutions based on current international law, the fear faded. And, at that moment, it was seen that the judges were unable to break down the wall towards the truth. Despite its good intentions, the Judiciary has not been able to be effective and we are lacking. We still have more than a thousand or so missing, that is barbaric.”
Daniela Mohor W. is a journalist and co-author of ‘The Search’
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