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French court sentences Pinochet officials in absentia

A Paris court has handed out sentences of 15 years to life to leading members of the regime of late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for their involvement in the disappearance of four French citizens.

three elderly women walking next to each other

Relatives attending the trial

The Pinochet regime was responsible for 3,200 deaths between 1973 and 1990. Four of them were French: a priest, a doctor, a chemical engineer and a student leader, aged 24 to 46.

On Friday in Paris, a court convicted 13 leading officials linked to Chile's late dictator Augusto Pinochet of kidnapping, arbitrary detention, torture and barbarous acts. The officials were accused of involvement in the disappearance of the four French citizens. Two defendants were sentenced to life in prison, a further defendant was acquitted.

One of the life sentences went to Manuel Contreras, the former head of Chile's Dina secret police. He is currently serving life in a Chilean jail for assassinating the defence chief of leftist president Salvador Allende, toppled by Pinochet in a US-backed coup in 1973.

troubled male face and posters reading: where are they?

The four French citizens vanished like so many people during the Pinochet regime

The ruling went beyond the request of the state prosecutor, who had sought 20-year prison terms for three of the defendants and 15 years for the remaining 11.

An historic trial

They were all tried in absentia: In the absence of an extradition treaty between Paris and Santiago, France was not in a position to force their presence.

Pinochet was himself implicated in the disappearance of the four men but he died in 2006 without ever facing trial.

Hoping for justice, the wives, children and brothers and sisters of the four men who vanished between 1973 and 1975 have been attending the trial that opened on December 8.

"Five members of the military came to get my father. They were in air force uniform," Roberto Pelle told France-Infos radio. "They took him in front of all of his work colleagues. That's how he disappeared."

Waiting for 35 years

What happened next was speculation, Pelle said. "What they often did at that time was to get rid of the bodies by tossing them into a volcano or into the ocean." His father's body was never found.

Nathalia Shonfrot, the daughter of one of the disappeared, said the fact that the accused were unlikely to be arrested unless they tried to leave Chile didn't detract from the trial's significance. "What's important is the symbolic value of getting international condemnation of what happened," she said.

"It's important, too, that the guilty know that impunity is not eternal and it is not universal."

William Bourdon, the lawyer representing the families of three of the victims, underlined the significance of the trial as the only major trial in contemporary times that gave an overall picture of the Pinochet regime that was "marked by something Pinochet invented, which was to erase opponents by making them disappear."

Author: John Laurenson in Paris, Dagmar Breitenbach (AFP,AP)
Editor: Rob Turner

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