Chile's past haunts protests over rights

Nov. 3, 2011 at 5:04 PM
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SANTIAGO, Chile, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Chile's abysmal record of human rights violations under its past dictatorial regimes is coming to haunt the democratic administration of President Sebastian Pinera as criticism of his rule mounts.

The reasons are complex and part fact and part perception that old habits die hard.

Pinera came to power on a ticket of steering all Chileans into the 21st century and industrial society but misfortune and miscalculations have left that promise unfilled.

First there was the earthquake. The 8.8-magnitude temblor on Feb. 27, 2010, devastated parts of Chile and wiped away a cash reserve Pinera hoped to spend on making good his pledge of prosperity.

More natural disasters followed, depleting more of state cash reserves on infrastructural reconstruction, humanitarian relief and resettlement of tens of thousands of displaced people.

Problems mounted as Pinera tried to reshape the country and government to a mold he envisioned. However, this wasn't a revolution but simply a change of presidency, so Pinera found himself dealing with entrenched groups and individuals in the government and judiciary and other institutions of the establishment.

The country's law enforcement agencies are part of that system and now Pinera is facing huge embarrassment over international condemnation of tactics used by the Carabineros, Chile's national police and gendarmerie, to suppress student protesters.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous part of the Organization of American Studies, ruled the security forces' treatment of the youth was disproportionate. Other critics suggested it revived memories of the excesses under the 1973-90 rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, partly because the authorities resorted to laws in force since that dictatorial rule.

The students want sweeping education reforms to remove inequalities inherited from the past and marked by class distinctions, elitism, privilege and a multitiered system of support for pupils.

Instead, critics allege, students received harsh treatment as they went to the streets to press for their rights. Chile has been rocked by student protests for more than six months.

The Carabineros are accused of violently dispersing the protesters with tear gas, water cannon and batons, then carrying out arbitrary detention and torture.

"The way in which these protests, that involve children and adolescents, have been suppressed is deplorable," said Paulo Sergio Coelho, one of the four commissioners who oversaw the preliminary hearing at IACHR headquarters in Washington.

Chile's Instituto Igualdad -- Equality Institute -- which submitted the claims of abuse in August faced government and ruling party criticism for "damaging the image of the country." The Carabineros also defended their conduct, claiming to have acted in full compliance with the law.

However, their contention drew attention to the laws used to deal with the students.

Instituto Igualdad representative Marelic Branislav said the legal instruments used to deal with the students dated back to the Pinochet regime, The Santiago Times reported.

One of the Pinochet laws still in force, Decree 1086, requires citizens to seek government permission for any public protest and authorizes the Carabineros to use force to disperse even peaceful protests that aren't authorized.

The other main criticism of the country's legal framework was the process by which Carabineros officers are tried for their crimes in military courts, as Chile's uniformed police force falls under the armed forces.

"It is a partial system that tends to protect the abuser, who will ultimately not be penalized," said Jaque Ribera, also representing Instituto Igualdad.

So far the government remains unrepentant.

Foreign Ministry official Miguel Angel Gonzalez, quoted in The Santiago Times said, "There are certain violent groups … the same that are involved in environmental marches and among football fans … that have infiltrated the student protests and that … use it (protests) as an excuse to go into the streets and cause destruction."

The commission wants Chile to amend the law regulating demonstrations and end military tribunals that involve civil offenses.

It also wants the Carabineros administration to explain how its officers distinguish vandals among peaceful protesters.

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