Ya se te acreca la hora de tu juicio Senador Vetalicio! Le gritan los fantasmas de nuestros compañeros…
Senator-for-life, the hour of your judgement awaits! Scream the ghosts our compañeros …
These are the words of a former political prisoner of Pinochet’s regime, writing to his friends and family in Sheffield, following the arrest of Chile’s former dictator on 16 October 1998.
A student at the time of the military coup on 11 September 1973, he had been politically active in a political party which had supported Dr Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected President.
Due to his political activities, this 23 year old was targeted by the secret police, imprisoned and tortured in the infamous Villa Grimaldi (one of Chile’s most notorious torture centres).
Escaping with his family into exile after two years imprisonment in a concentration camp, he went on to obtain a BSc and a PhD at the University of Sheffield.
The arrest of Pinochet has since become a seminal case in the international human rights law but what is less well-known is the role those fleeing the regime played in his arrest and detention.
Pinochet finally stepped down in January 2000, after ruling ruthlessly for 17 years; using executions, torture, political repression and forced disappearances to silence his opponents and create a climate of fear.
Thousands were killed, ‘disappeared’ and tortured at the hands of the state, with over a thousand still missing to this day. Hundreds of thousands were forced into exile (by the state) to countries across the world where they campaigned tirelessly against the regime, receiving support from many sectors of society.
By the time Pinochet was arrested, Chile had enjoyed eight years of democracy; however its wounds had far from healed.
Attempts to bring about justice for the thousands of victims in Chile itself had been isolated to a small number of high-profile cases, and Pinochet still enjoyed the immunity bestowed to him by the 1980 constitution and his position of Senator-for life.
When Pinochet was awoken by the Met Police in his hospital bed in the early hours of 16 October 1998, following a back operation, millions of Chileans across the world watched in shock and disbelief.
The warrant was for the crimes of Torture, Genocide and Terrorism and the culmination of years of work by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon and Lawyer Juan Garces (who had worked in Allende’s government) along with family and victim groups.
However, such crimes hadn’t been tried since Nuremburg and the arrest of Pinochet became a landmark case for the international jurisdiction of human rights law, stripping sovereign immunity for crimes against humanity and paving the way for the International Criminal Court and future prosecutions.
The Chilean exiles played a critical role in campaigning for the extradition of Pinochet. Hundreds spontaneously made their way to Harley Street as soon as the news of his arrest emerged, and this became a permanent picket, following Pinochet to wherever he was held for the next 503 days.
Exile groups and networks sprung up everywhere (in the UK and abroad) including the Chile Committee against Impunity in London (El Piquete de Londres) and the Committee for Political Prisoners and Victims of Torture in Sheffield.
Not only did such groups re-activate networks formed during the years of Chile Solidarity but there emerged a new generation of activists; the second generation of exiles who had arrived as children and were now adults, willing to continue the fight for truth and justice. The transmission of memory had sown the seeds for future political action.
For a year and a half, these groups and networks lobbied decision makers extensively to try and ensure that Pinochet would be extradited. Using publicity stunts, art and culture, music, petitions and acts of non-violent protest, the exiles were able to gain (and maintain) the attention of the media – despite being up against the former dictator’s expensive PR machinery.
The exiles also worked tirelessly to translate cases for Amnesty International’s lawyers with the aim of getting Pinochet prosecuted in the UK, and helped source new cases for legal action in a number of countries who were now looking to add to Pinochet’s charge list.
This became particularly important when the Law Lords ruled on 24 March 1999 that Pinochet could not face crimes of torture before the UK ratified the Torture Convention in December 1988; drastically reducing his charge sheet to only three. Thus it was the network of exiles that helped find the new cases on which his warrant became based upon.
Despite the legal arguments being won, it was politics that decided Pinochet’s fate and in the end he was sent back on humanitarian grounds on 3 March 2000 by the then Home Secretary Jack Straw.
However, the immense campaign which the exiles had created meant that by the time he left RAF Brize Norton there were four European countries asking for his extradition, and the case itself had changed the face of international human rights law forever. Moreover, Chile had been finally forced to face the horrors of its past, by the very same people it had expelled so many years ago.
Maria Vasquez-Aguilar arrived from Chile with her family as political refugee in 1978. She is a qualified Politics teacher and an active member of the Chilean Community. She is in the third year of her part-time PhD at the University of Sheffield; entitled ‘Exiles in Action: Political activism amongst the Chilean Refugees in the UK, 1973-2013’.
Image courtesy of the Tony Auth Archive
 Email sent by Dr Sergio Vasquez. There is no direct translation for the word ‘compañeros’ and its meaning depends on the context. In this case Sergio is referring to those who have died in the struggle against the regime.
 Sheffield received around 300 Chilean refugees following the military coup, many still live in the city today.
 It is estimated that nearly two million left during the dictatorship, and Chile Solidarity Campaigns appeared in over 80 countries across the world including the UK.
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1998/10/22/pinochet-case-tries-spanish-legal-establishment/cc679089-fa22-4e68-8022-0bb5b0dee6fd/ Human rights and church organisations in Chile had for years catalogued the atrocities of the regime in the hope of being able to one day use them in a court of law.