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Chile sentences two Germans for Pinochet-era crimes

October 20, 2015

A court has sentenced two residents of a cagey German community in south Chile for their role in kidnapping 50 people in 1975. The 'Colonia Dignidad' community is known to have collaborated with Pinochet's regime.

The entrance to Colonia Dignidad
The entrance to Colonia Dignidad - Pinochet's German-led proxy torture chamber in a secluded part of southern ChileImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hernandez

The three defendants in the case, Germans Kurt Schnellenkamp and Gerhard Mücke and Chilean national Fernando Gomez Segovia, were each given five years in prison for their respective roles in the 1975 spring kidnappings, which were coordinated with General Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship.

According to court documents, the abductees were taken to the German-speaking enclave of Colonia Dignidad in southern Chile in a joint operation that involved intelligence agents and residents of the settlement.

"The victims were interrogated under torture that consisted mainly of applying electrical current to different sensitive parts of the body," the court said.

It also granted a settlement package of 20 million Chilean pesos (26,000 euros) to survivors and their immediate relatives.

Enclave of torture

The village of Colonia Dignidad was founded in 1961 by Paul Schäfer, a former medic in the Third Reich, who had fled the Federal Republic of Germany in 1959 after facing child abuse charges. Schäfer, who died in 2010 at the age of 88 while serving his prison term, was accused of running a sadistic cult in the heavily fortified German "colony." He had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing and torturing children at the site.

More than 200 Germans lived in Colonia Dignidad, whose name translates as "colony of dignity," at the height of Schäfer's influence. Many of the original settlers were believed to have escaped Germany in order avoid charges for Nazi crimes.

Gerhard Mücke
Gerhard Mücke was sentenced to five years in prison in the highly-anticipated trialImage: Reuters

The village has since been renamed "Villa Baviera" and currently has more than 100 inhabitants, many of whom are descendants of Schäfer's original cult members.

Collaboration with Pinochet

Schäfer was accused of letting Pinochet's agents torture political prisoners in a maze of stone-walled tunnels dug beneath Colonia Dignidad, which the Chilean state seized in 2005. Evidence suggests that some of them died there as well.

Londres 38, a prominent Chilean rights group, published leaked documents earlier this month to prove a close relationship between leaders of the German enclave and high-ranking figures in Pinochet dictatorship.

Kurt Schnellenkamp
Kurt Schnellenkamp's son Klaus released a memoir about growing up in the enclave, entitled 'Born in the Shadow of Fear'Image: Reuters

According to government officials, more than 3,200 people died under Pinochet's 1973-1990 military dictatorship. Unofficial numbers suggest that at least 5,000 people died.

Coming to terms with the past

Chileans are still trying to find closure in regards to crimes committed by the Pinochet regime, having celebrated 25 years of democracy last year. Under Pinochet, dissidents were routinely tortured and killed. Recent leaked documents showed how 150 people, many of them weighed down by sections of railroad track, were executed by being thrown from helicopters into the ocean and lakes.

Many Chileans followed the Colonia Dignidad trial, after the recent leaking of documents and a Hollywood blockbuster called "Colonia" released this year drew renewed attention to some of the darker chapters of the country's history. While many expressed relief at the latest verdict, some criticized that it wasn't firm enough.

Paul Schäfer
Paul Schäfer's influence in the secluded Colonia Dignidad has often been compared to that of a cult leaderImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Fernando Gomez Segovia is housed in a special prison designed for human rights abusers during the dictatorship of Pinochet. He was a former operative of Chile's feared National Intelligence Directorate (DINA).

The Germans, Gerhard Mücke and Kurt Schnellenkamp, meanwhile are kept in a regular prison for sex crimes committed in Colonia Dignidad. In 2007, Schnellenkamp's son published a book about his experience after having fled the enclave.

After the latest trial there may still be further Colonia Dignidad members to face legal consequences. Paul Schäfer's deputy in the colony, 71-year-old Harmut Hopp, may be awaiting extradition to Chile after fleeing to Germany in 2011, when a Chilean court sentenced him to five years in prison for aiding in sexual abuse.

ss/msh (AFP, epd)