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Sept. 11 marks 32 years since Pinochet coup in Chile

Sunday, September 11, 2005

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Sept. 11 is dark day in Chile, too: the anniversary of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's bloody military coup. And as in the past, it finds Chileans not just sad, but angry.

Violent protests have broken out in several cities, leaving four people injured and at least 20 detained. The government warned of "zero tolerance" for anyone who tries to incite unrest today.

"This is not the Chile we want to build," said President Ricardo Lagos, urging his South American nation to remain calm this weekend.

Pinochet seized power Sept. 11, 1973, toppling democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, who committed suicide during the military bombardment of the government palace.

The 'disappeared'

The general went on to govern Chile for 17 years. During that time, 3,197 people were killed for political reasons, according to an official report prepared by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet in 1990. More than 1,000 others -- the "disappeared" -- remain unaccounted for and were presumably murdered after being picked up by Pinochet's security forces.

But while hundreds of former military officers are being tried on human rights charges, only a few have been convicted, including four generals. Pinochet himself has been indicted twice and still faces hundreds of lawsuits, but has been spared trial because of his poor health.

A step toward reconciling

A group of right-wing legislators last week introduced a bill that would pardon any convicted military men who have completed 10 years in prison.

The government suggested it may accept the bill as a step toward reconciliation.

"It's important to see how we can advance in healing wounds," said Lagos, but some of his own supporters angrily rejected the legislative proposal.

Today the 89-year-old former ruler has virtually disappeared from public view, even as he battles lawsuits stemming from the abuses of his era. He also faces tax evasion charges related to what prosecutors say are multimillion dollar secret bank accounts he owns overseas.

Pinochet appears isolated even from some of his staunchest supporters who steadfastly backed him in the face of human rights abuse accusations, but have not defended him in his money troubles.

Last month, Lagos pardoned retired army Sgt. Manuel Contreras, who was midway through a 10-year prison term for the 1982 killing of a prominent union leader opposed to Pinochet. The president said his decision was intended "to send a strong signal" of reconciliation but, instead, it caused an uproar.

Even Lagos' supporters protested the pardon, another sign that reconciliation remains elusive.

"One works hard to get a human rights violator indicted and then he is pardoned," complained Lorena Pizarro, who heads a group of relatives of dissidents who disappeared at the hands of Pinochet's security forces.

"Those who are guilty must be punished," she told The Associated Press. "We will continue to fight to gain even more convictions."

Pizarro's group has filled lawsuits against several suspected rights violators who took orders from Pinochet.

On the other side, Gen. Juan Guillermo Toro, who heads a group of retired military officers, complains they have suffered discrimination.

Toro said the Contreras pardon was a rare exception and that scores of former leftist guerrillas who killed soldiers and others while waging armed struggle against Pinochet's regime -- or even after civilian rule was restored --also have been pardoned.

"Justice must be the same for everybody. That's all we ask for," he declared.


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