Jury holds ex-officer liable for 1973 slaying in Chile

AP News
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Posted: Jun 27, 2016 4:33 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A former lieutenant under the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet tortured and killed a famed Chilean folk singer whose family had been seeking justice for more than 40 years, a federal jury in Florida ruled Monday.

The jury in the civil case ordered former Lt. Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nunez to pay singer Victor Jara's family $28 million in damages.

Jara's family had claimed that Barrientos was in charge of soldiers at the stadium where Jara was tortured and killed in the days after Pinochet's coup d'etat in 1973. The coup led to the torture and disappearance of thousands of political opponents.

"This is the beginning of justice for all the relatives in Chile awaiting the fate of what happened to their loved ones," said Joan Jara, Victor Jara's wife outside the federal courthouse in Orlando, Florida.

Barrientos — who now lives in central Florida — had discounted a witness who made that claim, and said the lawsuit should never have gone to court. His attorney, Luis Calderon, said no decision on an appeal had been made yet.

"We are disheartened by the jurors' verdict. We hoped it would have gone our way," Calderon said. "We are going to take stock and explore our options."

The lawsuit was filed by Joan Jara; Victor Jara's daughter, Amanda, who was 8 when her father died; and his stepdaughter, Manuela, who was 13, under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows civil lawsuits to be filed in the United States against people who have committed torture.

"It's a case for criminals to see that if they ever commit a crime anywhere on this planet, they cannot run away and hide," Amanda Jara said after the verdict.

Victor Jara was a popular singer and political activist who worked for the candidacy of Salvador Allende, a Socialist who was elected president of Chile in 1970. Allende's efforts to nationalize industries, including the takeover of U.S.-owned copper companies, drew fierce opposition internally and from the United States, which opposed leftist influences in Latin America amid the Cold War.

Pinochet, an Army commander, orchestrated a coup against Allende's government in September 1973. Allende killed himself after unsuccessfully leading resistance to a military assault on the presidential palace. Pinochet and the military junta he headed shut down congress, opposition political parties and trade unions. Soldiers rounded up Allende supporters and ideological enemies and sent them to the stadium where many were tortured or disappeared.

Years later, various commissions determined that almost 3,200 people were killed or went missing between 1973 and 1990, when Pinochet's dictatorship ended, and tens of thousands of people were tortured or arrested and interrogated.

In a 2000 report, The Central Intelligence Agency said it was aware of the coup plotting but that it didn't instigate it. Some historians argue that U.S. efforts to destabilize Allende's government helped foment the coup.

"Victor could never have imagined that justice for his case would occur in the United States," Joan Jara said Monday.

The Jara lawsuit claimed that the singer's music and political beliefs, spotlighting social inequality, were a threat to Pinochet's young government. Victor Jara was arrested during an army assault on the university where he worked, and he was transported to the stadium that had been converted into a makeshift prison for some 5,000 detainees. He was taken to an underground locker room where he was brutally beaten and then shot more than 40 times, including in the head, according to the lawsuit.

In 1978, Joan Jara attempted to have a criminal investigation opened in Chile, but those efforts were thwarted by a law granting amnesty to anyone who committed crimes from 1973 to 1978. In 2012, the Santiago Court of Appeals charged Barrientos as a perpetrator in the killing of Jara but couldn't move forward with a prosecution because Chilean law doesn't allow for prosecutions in absentia. That left the family with no options to pursue justice in Chile, the lawsuit said.

Relatives of victims of the Pinochet regime previously have sued military leaders successfully in courts.

In 2003, a jury in Miami awarded $4 million to the family of a Chilean economist who was executed by a military squad known as the "Caravan of Death."