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2 July 2008

A warning to torturers everywhere

The man who did much of Pinochet's dirty work is given two 25 year sentences for blowing up an exile

By Kenzie Eliasen

The 506-page judgement by Judge Alejandro Solís, delivered thirty-five years after the military putsch in Chile in 1973, was perfectly timed. By a happy coincidence it was published within a couple of days of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Salvador Allende Gossens, country doctor, democratic socialist and elected president of Chile, done to death by the terrorism of the late, ineffable Augusto Pinochet, henpecked husband, failed father, facilitator of the narcotics trade, friend of Henry Kissinger and dictator of Chile for seventeen years.

Solís gave Pinocchio’s secret police chief, General Manuel (“Mamo”) Contreras a further two 25-year life sentences to serve for the murder of his comrade-in-arms General Carlos Prats, a former commander of the Chilean army, and his wife Sofía, living in exile in Argentina, who were blown up by a powerful and well-placed bomb in the car which was bringing them home from the pictures in Buenos Aires.

They died after Michael Townley, a US-Chilean citizen who freelanced for Mamo’s DINA organisation and the CIA, and his girl friend Mariana Callejas, a DINA agent, pressed the button to detonate the bomb as they sat in the dark in their Fiat 125 in Calle Malabía where the street lights had been extinguished by kind permission of the Contreras’ opposite numbers in the Argentine secret police.

Solís added a further 20 years for good measure for Mamo’s conspiracy with others to commit murder.

Naturally these prison terms come on top of the sentences of 289 years which the arch-torturer has collected after convictions on 25 previous charges. Mamo was an intimate of Pinocchio whom he met for breakfast virtually every morning to keep the dictator abreast of what the DINA thought was going on.

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It was in Mamo’s hands that the present Chilean President Michelle Bachelet lost her father, a brigadier-general in the Chilean air force who died in prison after torture following his opposition to Pinochet’s putsch against democracy. She herself and her mother Angela were thrown into the Villa Grimaldi torture centre in Santiago where they were ill-treated. But she became a doctor, was appointed Chile’s first woman defence minister and, as a member of the Socialist Party, won the elections which made her president in 2006.

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Yet Contreras can count himself lucky on two counts: the Supreme Court has so far seen fit to confirm only 57 of the 289 years of incarceration he has been sentenced to and the prisons that former Chilean generals go to are more in the nature of holiday camps than the overcrowded places like Pentonville and Brixton that decent British villains are consigned to.

Yet slowly but surely the net is tightening on other murderers and terrorists who have so far avoided the law. The Panamanians, for instance, this week declared unconstitutional the amnesty which a former Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso shamefully gave Washington’s favourite terrorist in 2004. It was one of Moscoso’s final acts in office. Luis Posada Carriles was facing justice in Venezuela on charges of having blown up a Cubana airliner in 1976 off Barbados and killed all the 43 occupants. But he escaped to Panama. He was arrested there and then President Moscoso waved her magic wand and let him go.

On arrival in the US he was allowed to go free last year by Judge Kathleen Cardone at the Texas border town of El Paso and was immediately acclaimed as a hero by the large group of right-wing terrorists who live happily in Florida. Unsurprisingly President Chávez of Venezuela has called for the US to cease protecting a man he calls a “terrorist and assassin” and to send him back to face charges in Caracas.

Torture and terrorism are things that are never forgotten – even after 35 years – and forgiven only with difficulty. Today, for instance, as part of her world cruise the sail training ship Esmeralda, a gift of the dictator Francisco Franco to Chile, lies in the Spanish port of Cadiz. Spanish campaigners there will be reminding their countrymen that the vessel was itself used as a torture centre in the days after Pinochet’s coup and inviting the Chilean navy to beg pardon for the crimes committed aboard.

In a recent interview President Bachelet underlined her determination for justice when she remarked, “All the pain I went through has been turned into strength.” Torturers and terrorists worldwide – not least those who had to do with the illegal invasions and killings, for instance, in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq and with the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay – should ponder those remarks. And continue trembling for a long time yet.