As Chile Marks 50th Anniversary of Pinochet Coup, the Struggle for Justice for Survivors Goes On

By Chris Esdaile, Legal Advisor 

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisEsdaile 

“I’m not asking for anything out of the ordinary, just that justice is done, because I know that justice is powerful – I know the power of justice”,

said REDRESS client Leopoldo García Lucero, before his death in 2021. In 2013, Leopoldo had achieved a landmark ruling upholding the right of torture survivors in exile to justice and reparation after surviving torture under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. 

On 11th September 1973, Chile’s democratically elected President, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a coup which brought Pinochet to power. It is estimated that during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) around 200,000 Chileans were forced into exile and over 38,000 survived torture. In addition, thousands were killed, disappeared or detained. 

Fifty years on, survivors still struggle to obtain truth, justice and reparations for what happened to them. For many years, an amnesty law excluded all individuals who committed human rights violations during the dictatorship from criminal responsibility. Those survivors forced into exile faced even greater obstacles (both legal and logistical) to obtain justice and reparation 

Leopoldo was arrested as a supporter of Allende, after the coup in September 1973. He was held in several concentration camps, including the National Stadium, where he was tortured. As a result of the torture, Leopoldo lost most of his teeth, his arm was broken in several places, his face was disfigured, and his spine was severely damaged.  He was subsequently forced into exile in the United Kingdom with his wife and their three daughters, leaving all their loved ones and possessions behind. After arriving in the UK, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was declared permanently disabled. 

In a landmark decision on 28 August 2013, almost 40 years after the events, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest human rights court in the Americas, issued a landmark ruling in his case, ordering Chile to provide Leopoldo with reparations, including compensation for failing to complete a criminal investigation into his torture; funding to cover the costs of his medical treatment in the UK and a public apology. It was the first time the Court had decided the case of a living survivor of torture under Pinochet’s dictatorship, opening the way for similar cases to be brought by other exiled torture survivors from the Pinochet era. 

Leopoldo was hugely proud of his achievement in obtaining this judgment, and said at the time:

“Overall what satisfies me is that this ruling sets a precedent not only in Latin America but for the whole world so that it doesn’t happen again.” 

The Inter-American Court judgment also said that Chile

“must continue and conclude, within a reasonable time, the investigation into the facts that occurred to Mr. García Lucero”.

As part of Chile’s efforts to comply with this requirement, on 9 November 2017, the Chilean Supreme Court made an order asking that the US authorities extradite one of the alleged perpetrators, Carlos Humberto Minoletti Arriagada, to Chile so that he could be tried for crimes against humanity.  

However, significant delays on the part of the Chilean authorities meant that there was little tangible progress made on Minoletti’s extradition before Leopoldo died on 18 August 2021. Minoletti himself then died in the US on 8 April 2022, before he could be extradited. 

Almost exactly ten years after the Inter-American Court judgment, the only criminal proceedings in Chile in relation to Leopoldo’s torture were formally concluded in August 2023 as a result of Minoletti’s death. No-one has yet been convicted or sentenced in relation to Leopoldo’s torture. 

REDRESS has worked recently with the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos) in Chile to create a permanent archive in their collection dedicated to Leopoldo’s quest for justice. While initiatives such as these can help shed light on the human rights violations that occurred under the Pinochet regime, and become a form of reparation to the survivors, they do not exempt the Chilean government from its obligations to provide justice to survivors. 

The Chilean government must redouble its efforts to investigate outstanding cases, including that of Leopoldo, and avoid the increasing risk of impunity, as survivors and perpetrators become increasingly aged and die, along with any hopes of justice and reparations being achieved. Unfortunately, we mark the emblematic 50th anniversary of the coup in a context in which there remains widespread impunity for the crimes of the dictatorship. It is imperative that the Chilean authorities act before it is too late for victims to see justice.