• Email
  • Print

On Trial in Chile

In response to:

Terror in Chile II: The Amnesty Report from the May 30, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

Rose Styron’s article in your May 30, 1974 edition notes that American lawyers are being sent down to Chile to observe the first open political trials. I would like to tell you something of what we have seen and the role we are playing.

The presence of our group is significant. The Chilean defendants and their wives know that through the lawyers, they have contact with the outside world and that we will accurately report what is happening to them. This decreases the probability of secret killings and makes it harder for the junta to go back to its practice of secret trials. The Chilean lawyers who are representing the defendants know that the probabilities of their (or their wives and children) being jailed because of arguments that they make in court is made less likely by the fact that foreign observers are in the courtroom.

The group that I represented, The Lawyers Committee for Chile, is composed of law professors from Harvard, New York University and Yale, Orville Schell, President of the Bar Association of the City of New York, Paul O’Dwyer, New York City Council President, and other leaders of the Bar.

We had, after presenting our credentials to the junta in Santiago, been invited to watch the trials of leading officials of the Allende regime and air force officers accused of conspiracy, in order to show that the proceedings were fair to the defendants, six of whom face the death penalty. The trials are being conducted on the outskirts of Santiago in the Air Force Academy….

The Chilean military code governs the trials, the government having suspended the constitution and the lower courts after the September 11, 1973, coup. The government presents its case without live witnesses, the prosecutor relying solely on the confessions of the defendants to prove his case. Confessions have been taken from each of the sixty-seven persons charged. In cases where the penalties are twenty to thirty years, it takes the government twenty minutes to an hour to present its case. Before the trials were opened, the military tribunal (seven judges, one is a lawyer) felt that by sitting four hours a day, the sixty-seven trials could be finished in a week to ten days. However, now it appears it can’t be done that quickly and the tribunal expects the trials to take six weeks. Each murder trial, according to the new schedule, will take two-hours.

All the defendants originally had trouble obtaining lawyers, going unrepresented for months. Nearly all of their present lawyers are from the right of center, originally supporters of the junta and former opponents of Allende. At lunch one day during the trial, a colonel high in the administration told me these lawyers were Marxist, for if they weren’t, they would not be representing these defendants. Some of the lawyers who feel they must raise issues that will displease the regime are thinking of sending their wives and children out of the country. Many feel they ought to do this before the defense seeks to prove that the confessions were obtained by torture.

On the first day of the trial, one of the lawyers told the press the defendants would raise the question of maltreatment. He was then advised by one of the officers present that he would be arrested for treason. He hasn’t raised the issue again. A few days later a defense lawyer contested in court the legal validity of the trials. He said the junta could not establish the legitimacy of the military tribunal by saying that the civilian courts could be ignored because it declared a state of war, for, he said, the junta, under the Chilean constitution, did not have the right to declare a state of war. The prosecutor became furious. He asked that the defense lawyer be immediately removed from the case. He was. The lawyer is in the process of being disbarred.

Under the Chilean military code, the judges have discretion to recognize or to bar defense witnesses. So far the judges have exercised their discretion in favor of the defendants, allowing character witnesses to take the stand. When the first defense witnesses were called and walked from the witness room in the back of the auditorium to sit before the military tribunal and testify that the defendant was of good character and one whom he had known and spoken to, it was an act of great courage. I held my breath as I watched the defense witnesses—a storekeeper who lived near the defendant, a soldier who served in his unit—for I felt their lives were at stake.

Even while this trial goes on, hundreds of secret trials are going on. A lawyer representing one of the defendants in this trial told me about another case. “I was called Monday at eleven in the morning and told to represent a defendant. I said I couldn’t, I knew nothing about the case. They said unless I was there at noon, the trial would start without a lawyer. The defendant, Marcos, was a nineteen-year-old boy charged with giving a treasonous political speech. The prosecutor…sought the death penalty. I went there, the prosecutor read the defendant’s confession. Marcos refused to allow me to raise the question of torture, feeling the tribunal would only get angry if I did. I said only that the confession was not true. The trial took a half an hour. The judge said he would call me and give me the verdict. By Thursday, I hadn’t heard. I called the tribunal, and was told he was shot on Tuesday. The death sentence was handed down in the afternoon of the trial. I found his parents and fiancee and told them. They had not heard from him in months and did not even know that he was arrested or charged.”

It is our plan to send lawyers to Chile to observe these trials and the other trials throughout the summer. We ask you to contribute to the cost of this operation by sending your donations to Lawyers for Chile, c/o Michael Krinsky, Esq., 30 East 42 Street, New York, New York 10017.

Martin Garbus

New York City

  • Email
  • Print