Published on Thursday, March 16, 2000 by InterPress Service
US Inquiry May Link Pinochet to Letelier Murder
by Gustavo González
 

SANTIAGO, CHILE - The US Justice Department's decision to re-open investigations into the 1976 assassination of a former Chilean foreign minister and his assistant could mean the eventual implication of former dictator Augusto Pinochet in the crime.

Juan Bustos, a Chilean attorney and socialist legislator, said Wednesday that renewed inquiries into the murder of Orlando Letelier, who had also served as Chile's defence minister, and his secretary, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, may mean further legal troubles ahead for his country's former dictator.

A Washington DC court is studying the case of the Sept 21, 1976 car-bomb assassination, which occurred in the US capital just one kilometre from the White House.

The court has sent a petition to Chilean justice authorities to request the questioning of 46 former officials and collaborators under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).

Among those listed on the request are former directors and agents of the military regime's secret police, as well as former ministers - many of who also appear on Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón's roster of Chile's ''extraditables.''

The US petition, sent through diplomatic channels to the Chilean Supreme Court, was released Tuesday and caused some surprise among political and legal circles as well as the individuals named on the list.

Chilean justice authorities consider the ''Letelier case'' closed, because on May 30, 1995 its Supreme Court handed down prison sentences to the two principal figures behind the assassination.

Retired army general Manuel Contreras, a former chief of the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), was condemned to seven years in prison, and the DINA's former second-in-command, retired brigadier Pedro Espinoza, was sentenced to six.

The fact that the attack committed by DINA agents and anti-Castro Cubans resulted in the death of Letelier's secretary, Ronni Moffitt, a US citizen, means it is still an open case in that country, explained Bustos, who also serves as legal counsel for Letelier's widow and children.

In 1978, the Chilean Supreme Court refused the extradition of Contreras, Espinoza and captain Aramando Fernández - also a DINA agent - to the United States, though Fernández later collaborated with US justice authorities under a witness protection programme.

Michael Townley, a US citizen, also sought witness protection. He was a DINA agent, turned over to US authorities in 1978 by the dictatorship, said to have manufactured the bomb that killed Letelier and Moffitt.

The declassification of previously confidential documents belonging to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the State Department and other US government agencies contributed to the re-opening of the Letelier case in Washington.

Investigators also had access to documents provided by judge Garzón, who since 1996 has been investigating crimes against humanity committed by the former dictatorships in Chile and Argentina (1976-1983).

The Spanish judge began by working on the charges against Argentina's former dictators, but then expanded his work to include Pinochet and his collaborators under Operation Condor, which co-ordinated the repressive forces of several South American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

Garzón convinced the British authorities to arrest Pinochet in London Oct 16, 1998, and later got Spain to request the former Chilean dictator's extradition. But the 84-year-old retired general was released two weeks ago for humanitarian reasons due to his allegedly failing health.

Bustos indicated that the US justice authorities requested the testimonies in order to clarify whether or not the former officials and agents of the dictatorship had previous knowledge of the preparations to assassinate Letelier and Moffitt, or of the crime's subsequent cover-up.

Through their interrogations, the authorities may be able to establish the roles of some of the individuals petitioned, as well as that of Pinochet, who holds political immunity in Chile due to his seat as senator-for-life.

The former dictator, however, could be stripped of this privilege if the Santiago Court of Appeals admits a request for Pinochet's removal from the Senate - submitted by Chilean judge Juan Guzmán, who is investigating 74 criminal charges presented against Pinochet in Chile.

Soledad Alvear, current Foreign minister under the new Ricardo Lagos government - which took office Saturday - and former Justice minister under the previous Eduardo Frei administration, said authorities would guarantee the independence of the Chilean Judicial branch in responding to the US petition.

Joaquín Billard, head of the First Criminal Court of Santiago, is now entrusted with processing the requests so that each of the indivuals identified by US justice authorities prepares a declaration to be made from Chile.

Among the 46 people the Washington DC court wishes to question, four are no longer living: former air-force commander Gustavo Leigh, former government minister and general Raúl Bejares, former general of the military police Rigoberto González and former senator Jaime Guzmán, who was assassinated in 1991 by leftist extremists.

Among those petitioned are the jailed Contreras and Espinoza, as well as other chiefs at DINA and its successor organistion, the National Centre of Information (CNI), former high army officials and several of the former dictatorship's ministers, like Sergio Rillón, Pinochet's principal adviser.

Also on the list is retired general Raúl Iturriaga, currently under arrest and awaiting extradition to Italy, where he has been charged with defaulting on an 18-year prison sentence for the 1975 murders in Rome of former Chilean vice-president Bernardo Leighton and his wife, Anita Fresno.

Among the Pinochet ministers listed is Mónica Madariaga, former minister of Justice and Education. She also faces arrest, under Spanish judge Garzón's order, if she travels outside of Chile.

Earlier this month, Madariaga filed charges in Chilean court against Cuba's president Fidel Castro for his supposed complicity in the 1982 assassination of general Carol Urzúa in Santiago.

Human rights organisations interpreted her action as a response by the Chilean political right to Pinochet's 503-day arrest in London.

© InterPress Service

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