Chile judge questions ex-officers in 1986 killing of U.S. student

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 22, 2015 4:04 PM

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - A Chilean judge interrogated five former military officers on Wednesday over the burning and killing of a U.S. student during a Santiago labor strike in 1986, and said he expects to announce what charges, if any, they will face on Friday.

The five, along with two more ex-officers set to be questioned on Thursday, are suspected of using gasoline and a lighter to burn and kill 19-year-old U.S. student Rodrigo Rojas and seriously injure Carmen Gloria Quintana, then aged 18, at a protest during the country's 1973-1990 dictatorship.

Official accounts of the incident said the two victims accidentally set themselves ablaze when constructing a flaming barricade to repel law enforcement.

But Judge Mario Carroza reopened the case in 2013 at the request of human rights groups and ordered the arrests of the ex-officers after a military conscript, Fernando Guzman, changed his previous testimony. Guzman said the officers intentionally set the two teenagers ablaze before abandoning them in a ditch in the outskirts of the capital.

"This opens a new chapter in human rights in Chile," said Quintana, who survived the incident, to CNN Chile on Wednesday.

"The truth has come late, and I hope that justice comes, too. I congratulate this former conscript for his bravery, and for finding the courage to tell the truth," she told CNN.

Although support for Pinochet in Chile has declined in recent years, the country still remains deeply divided by the events of the 1973 coup and the repression that followed. Pinochet left office in 1990, but arrests and prosecutions of former government officials remain commonplace.

The death of the U.S. student in particular was a key factor in increasing international pressure on Augusto Pinochet to relinquish power and transition the nation to democracy.

The seven arrested officers are Luis Zuniga, Francisco Vasquez, Sergio Hernandez, Julio Castanen, Ivan Figueroa, Nelson Medina, and Jorge Astengo.

"For the fight for human rights, it is a great triumph," Amanda de Negri, the aunt of Rodrigo Rojas, told Chilean television on Wednesday. "That someone would break the silence is something we always hoped for, and finally it happened."

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Bill Rigby)