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Time for justice: Prosecuting German collaborators of Pinochet regime

Justice is long overdue for victims of atrocities committed in Chile's Colonia Dignidad.

by Andreas Schuller

More than two decades after Chile's return to democracy, and eight years after the Colonia Dignidad ceased to exist in its original form, the darkest parts of the gruesome German settlement in rural Southern Chile have yet to come to light.

Allegedly, the controversial German colony was one of the main torture and extermination camps of the Pinochet dictatorship, and more than 100 political prisoners were likely killed there. In addition, it has been alleged that members of the settlement were mistreated with electroshocks and psychotropics, and the leader of the settlement Paul Schäfer has been convicted of sexually abusing the children living there.

The colony's participation in large scale arms production and trade have been proven, and even experiments with chemical and bacterial weapons are said to be part of the criminal activities of the German settlement. A comprehensive criminal investigation of these crimes, however, has so far not taken place. The judiciaries of both countries, Chile and Germany, have to fulfil their obligations to investigate and prosecute, and these governments must also strongly support the accountability process. The time for truth and justice is long overdue.

When the ECCHR learned in summer 2011, that Hartmut Hopp, the former head of the hospital and “representative for external affairs/foreign minister” of the Colonia Dignidad, fled Chile and returned to Germany, it filed a criminal complaint and put German law enforcement authorities on notice. Hopp fled from the Chilean justice system, to avoid an impending final conviction against him and five others for their responsibility in rape and sexual abuse of children - which came in January - imposing five to eleven year prison sentences. Wanted by Interpol, only Germany could provide a safe haven for Hopp, because it does not extradite its own citizens. However, only a week after ECCHR's complaint, the local prosecutor in the German town of Krefeld, opened a formal investigation against Hopp.

Although some cases of sexual abuse of children, abuse of pharmaceutics, and also the disappearances of opponents to the Pinochet regime in the 1970s, are already under investigation today, accessing witnesses in Chile is difficult and time-consuming.

Failures of Germany

Hopp's case was not the first investigation against leading figures of Colonia Dignidad initiated by German law enforcement. Just the year before Hopp returned, the prosecutor of Bonn, closed his file against him and others after 25 years of investigations without any result.

The Bonn prosecutor had opened the file in 1985, when key witnesses fled Chile and made their way back to Germany. Although the investigation was directed against a number of suspects, among them Schäfer and Hopp, no decisive steps were taken. Thus, German authorities failed for decades to seriously investigate abuse allegations, though they had been made public by Amnesty International as early as 1977.

The inaction by Germany sheds a very negative light on the country, given the democratic constitution and well-developed judicial system, which is generally able to deal with cross-border investigations at a very high standard.

At the same time, Chile was still under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet and its justice system. Even after the return to democracy in 1990, Chile only slowly became able to take up such politically controversial cases. Thus, given the practical and political obstacles Chile had to face at the time, support from the German judiciary, like arrest warrants against Schäfer, Hopp and other leading figures, would have been decisive measures to stop the continuing human rights violations in Colonia Dignidad. This German assistance, however, was never offered.

Overdue justice

 Now, more than 20 years later, the survivors still suffer, but also, demand their rights in Germany and Chile. They strongly need the political support of both countries; to help facilitate the exchange of evidence between the two countries, provide sufficient resources to the prosecutor's offices, and to make investigation a top priority.

The prosecutor in Krefeld now has the chance to finally establish parts of the truth about the crimes committed by Colonia Dignidad.  Although some cases of sexual abuse of children, abuse of pharmaceutics, and also the disappearances of opponents to the Pinochet regime in the 1970s, are already under investigation today, accessing witnesses in Chile is difficult and time-consuming.

The lack of resources in both countries and missing or time-consuming bureaucratic cooperation between German and Chilean prosecutors delay proceedings. Nevertheless, the investigation against Hartmut Hopp might become the first effective case in Germany concerning the Colonia Dignidad, and thus, is of utmost importance. Hopp is only one central figure of the Colonia Dignidad, with many other suspects and victims also living in Germany. Hence, the Colonia Dignidad will, and should, continue to occupy the German and Chilean justice systems for a while. The time is long overdue.

Andreas Schüller is legal advisor at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin, Germany. The ECCHR is an independent, non-profit legal and educational organization dedicated to protecting civil and human rights throughout Europe. 



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