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Harsh Light on Pinochet's Gestapo

A STUDY by a human-rights commission in Chile has confirmed what people in Chile and elsewhere suspected, but for which they lacked hard evidence: that during its 17 years in power beginning in 1973, the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet engaged in wholesale torture and murder of political opponents. According to the report issued last week, more than 2,000 people ``disappeared'' at the hands of Pinochet's security forces - few of whom were terrorists or otherwise posed any threat to nation al security. President Patricio Aylwin appointed the panel of respected human-rights activists the day after his inauguration a year ago. Mr. Aylwin, who defeated Pinochet in a free election, hopes the thorough report can be a milestone in rebuilding his country's democracy and can aid in reconciling the hatreds caused by Pinochet's dictatorship.

Because the goal of the truth-telling is national reconciliation, and because most of the atrocities are covered by an amnesty decreed by Pinochet before relinquishing power, the report does not name the perpetrators. It is expected that few if any members of the security forces will be prosecuted. The families of some victims resent this, and will try to put pressure on the government to bring the torturers and murders to justice.

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Most Chileans, including many of Aylwin's political opponents, accept that the nation's foremost goal must be to strengthen democracy and heal wounds. The disclosures, though they lead to no indictments, should have a cathartic effect on the nation's moral and political consciousness.

In addition to its wider repercussions, the commission's report will assist the government in directing benefits to victims' families.

The study is a notable achievement in a region that has known many abuses of human rights under military regimes, but little accountability for such abuses. The only other Latin American country similarly to expose past atrocities is Argentina, where the military was discredited by defeat in the Falklands war. In contrast, Chile's military, still under Pinochet, remains a strong force in the country's politics. Under such circumstances, President Aylwin took a bold and brave step.


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