Victims of Pinochet’s military dictatorship are dissatisfied. Nineteen years after Chile returned to democratic rule, prosecutions of those who committed human rights violations between 1973 and 1990 still face numerous obstacles.

On behalf of victims and their families, the Federación Internacional de Derechos Humanos (FIDH) and Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos de Chile (AFDD) voiced grievances on November 3, 2009 during the 137th Session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

According to the petitioners, FIDH and AFDD, the light sentences handed down by the Chilean Supreme Court in cases of these alleged human rights violations are disproportionate to the severity of the crimes committed. The petitioners point to the 1978 amnesty law (Decree-Law 2191) passed by the legislature under the Pinochet regime, as one of the causes of the continued lenient sentencing. Because the amnesty law has not been repealed, the petitioners argue, the Chilean Supreme Court is not fulfilling its obligation to adhere to accepted standards and norms of sentencing under international humanitarian law.

In response to the petitioners’ allegations, Alejandro Salinas, representing the Chilean government, highlighted a number of government initiatives carried out since 1990. Between May 1990 and February 1991, the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation documented 3,428 cases of disappearance, killing, torture, and kidnapping. In 1992, the Chilean government established the National Corporation for Reparation and Reconciliation to provide financial support to victims and their families. The Corporation has disbursed over $1.6 billion to date.

Addressing the issue of prosecutions, Salinas asserted that a balanced assessment of the Supreme Court rulings reveals that there is no systematic tendency to issue lenient sentences. He pointed out that significant changes have been made to the Chilean Constitution to facilitate the application of international humanitarian law within Chilean national courts. Salinas contended that the upward trend in the number of cases underway pertaining to violations committed during the 1970s and 1980s is evidence of the Chilean government’s success in combating Pinochet-era crimes.

During the question period, Commissioner Sergio Pinheiro asked Salinas, “How is the Supreme Court reconciling its jurisprudence with that of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights?” This question referred to the case of Almonacid-Arellano v. Chile, decided in 2006 by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which found the application of Decree-Law 2191 incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights. In response, Salinas explained that the Chilean Supreme Court guards its autonomy and its independence, and the Chilean government respects the division of responsibility between the judiciary and the executive branch.

In conclusion, FIDH and AFDD made an appeal for the Commission to complete a special study and site visit to evaluate the barriers to and progress of ongoing prosecutions in Chile. Writing evaluative reports and conducting visits to Member States are two of the persuasive tools the Commission uses to promote and protect fundamental human rights in the Americas. If the Commission determines that the petitioner’s claim warrants an investigation, and both parties are unable to agree to an amicable settlement, the Commission may file an application for the case to be heard before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.