Insight: German sect victims seek escape from Chilean nightmare past

KREFELD, Germany Wed May 9, 2012 8:32am EDT

1 of 9. Werner Schmidtke speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in Krefeld, April 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

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KREFELD, Germany (Reuters) - - Werner Schmidtke has a recurring nightmare: he is in a room full of boys strapped to metal beds, naked and blindfolded with wax plugs in their ears, being tortured by a man with an electric prod. Any boy who screams is plunged into a tub full of freezing water and given more electric shocks.

For Schmidtke, who is now 51, the scene is all too real. He was subjected to this treatment as a youngster in a building known as "Neukra" (short for "New Hospital" in German) in Colonia Dignidad, a secretive sect set up in central Chile in 1961 by Paul Schaefer, a German World War Two medic turned evangelical preacher.

To this day, Schmidtke does not know why he was among the boys singled out for the torture from among Schaefer's 300 German followers, who endured decades of virtual slavery until Schaefer fled the Chilean police in 1997. Schaefer was arrested in Argentina and died in a Santiago prison in 2010 aged 88.

Poor, badly educated, and physically and mentally traumatized, some 100 sect members drifted back to their roots in the area north of the German city of Duesseldorf where the sect was born and where state welfare offered them help.

To their horror, Schaefer's right-hand man, Hartmut Hopp, a doctor who received a five-year jail term in Chile in 2011 for his role in the abuse, also turned up there last May.

Hopp, 67, had skipped Chile before his final sentencing, and Chile wants him back. But the German constitution forbids the extradition of its own citizens.

So Schmidtke and about 120 other Colonia Dignidad survivors, backed by a German rights group, are now plaintiffs in a German investigation into Hopp, for aiding and abetting the sexual abuse of 25 children between 1993 and 1997. They plan to sue the Chilean and German states for failing to protect them despite decades of warnings about what was going on inside the fortified enclave.

Schmidtke wants official acknowledgement of what happened, as well as money to help him and his wife Katharina - another Colonia Dignidad survivor - raise their two young daughters.

"The people of Germany have a right to know what happened too," said Schmidtke in his tidy flat, which features two canaries singing in a cage, artificial flowers and a print of an Alpine landscape.

When Reuters tried to talk to Hopp at his home in Krefeld town centre, he called the police.

Hopp's lawyer, Helfried Roubicek, also declined to be interviewed. But he wrote in an email that Hopp was cooperating with the court and that he might one day present the media with evidence that "the charges he is being investigated for by the prosecutors in Krefeld will, in the end, not be upheld under the German penal code and trial law". Asked to explain, he would only say his arguments would be based on "German law".

Chile filed an extradition request for Hopp last August. The Chilean judge leading the investigations into Colonia Dignidad said he could not discuss the case.

Germany's foreign ministry confirmed that Hopp could not be extradited but declined to comment further.

LOOKING FOR GOD

A smiling man with spectacles, a sparse beard and lank blond hair, Schmidtke's voice falters as he recounts his childhood of hard labor clearing woods and stony fields from dawn to dusk, often on a diet of bread and water.

He sailed to Chile in 1962 as a two-year-old, along with his mother and nine brothers and sisters, one of whom died as a child in Colonia Dignidad. His parents were convinced to sell the family home and follow Schaefer to South America by his powerful preaching and promise of a more godly life. Schmidtke's father stayed on in Germany to look after the sect's business interests and joined them in Chile eight years later.

On board the ship the children were separated from their mother, whom Schmidtke remembers as a "good-hearted woman", and were then kept apart like the other families in the enclave. In their new home, Schmidtke lived in the timber "Kinderhaus", or Children's House, where Schaefer had his private apartment. It was here that he first encountered the charismatic leader.

"One or two boys would be taken to his room every day, and one day I was called," Schmidtke told Reuters. "He sat me down on his bed and started to stroke me and ask me questions, to talk the way a father talks to his child, and I had no parents anymore.

"I have never forgotten it, my first dealings with Schaefer," he said. "I was about seven or eight. That is when the abuse and rape started."

Schaefer followed the teachings of American preacher William M. Branham, one of the founders of the "faith healing" movement in the 1940s and ‘50s. Born in a log cabin in Kentucky, Branham said he had been visited by angels and attracted tens of thousands of followers with sermons that advocated a strict adherence to the Bible, a woman's duty to obey her husband and apocalyptic visions, such as Los Angeles sinking beneath the ocean.

Former members of the sect say that Schaefer preached against "sins of the flesh." He also segregated men and women, they say, subjecting all but a few to enforced celibacy. Anyone who disobeyed was brutally punished, often by Schaefer personally.

When accusations of abuse and torture first cropped up in the media in the 1970s, Schaefer, known to his followers as "Permanent Uncle", urged sect members to stage hunger strikes in protest. Appearing frail and confused on his arrest, he was taken in a wheelchair to court where his lawyers said he was too ill for trial. He never acknowledged his crimes publicly, though in 2006 some sect members issued an apology through the Chilean press.

"I have to live every day with the consequences of what he did to me, to us," said Schmidtke.

He says he tried to escape the enclave five times, but always returned. "I had nobody to go to. As a child you need your parents to go and cry to and say 'I can't take any more'. But the only answer was to run away."

"ONE BIG FAMILY"

Public opinion in Germany turned against Schaefer in 1988, when two sect members who managed to escape via Canada - Georg and Lotti Packmor - gave testimony to a parliamentary hearing in the then-capital, Bonn, into whether German citizens were being forced to live in the enclave against their will.

When Lotti testified, she not only spoke about Schaefer but implicated Hopp, whom Schaefer had sent to medical school, and allowed to marry and own a car. As well as running the sect's hospital, Hopp had contact with officials and diplomats and when Packmor's first escape bid in 1980 failed, Hopp was one of those sent to fetch her. "Another peep out of you and you'll get an injection to keep you quiet," she recalled him saying.

In the secretive community, whose members were ruled by fear and ordered to spy on each other, it was not always easy to categorize victims and perpetrators. As a youngster, Hopp had also tried to flee, Packmor said, getting as far as Argentina.

Hopp, who travelled to Bonn to defend the sect at the 1988 hearings, testified that the group was "one big family" which in a quarter of a century had not had a single divorce or suicide, and whose members were free to leave at any time and were not subjected to forced labor.

"Despite that, there have always been people or groups who have slandered our society or individual members in an incredibly scandalous way by feeding misinformation to the press," Hopp said in his testimony to the Bundestag.

SECT DOCTOR

German prosecutors began to investigate Hopp after the Bundestag hearing, but it was not until Schaefer's downfall a decade later that Chilean authorities began investigating and arresting other leaders of the sect.

After Hopp was convicted of being an accomplice in the sexual abuse of children in Chile in 2011 and sentenced to five years in prison, he fled to Argentina and then to Krefeld.

About a dozen former sect members now attend an evangelical church in Krefeld run by Ewald Frank, who, like Schaefer before him, follows the teachings of Branham. Frank, who travels the world preaching, took legal action against local news outlets for reporting that his "Free Mission Krefeld" sheltered former sect leaders like Hopp. He said in a statement that his congregation shielded victims of the sect, not its leaders, and added in an email to Reuters: "For us, that unpleasant chapter for the time being is closed."

After Hopp's return to Germany, the doctor and his wife were hounded out of one home by neighbors who learned of his past as the "Sektenarzt" ("sect doctor"). Local authorities placed him in a new home for his own protection.

COLLABORATORS

In Germany, crimes against children must be prosecuted within 10 years of the victims reaching 18 years of age, which is why the charges Hopp is being investigated for - aiding and abetting the sexual abuse of 25 children of German and Chilean nationality - date from 1993 to 1997. The suspicion is that Hopp knew children in his care were being abused "but did nothing about it", said the prosecutor.

Krefeld's Chief Public Prosecutor Hans-Dieter Menden said the case will take time, not least because the legal documents between Chile and Germany require translation. He declined to speculate exactly how long.

The former sect members involved in the civil suit against the German and Chilean states are represented by Manfred Hempel, himself born in Colonia Dignidad in 1967.

Hempel escaped at the age of 20, when security briefly relaxed after Schaefer's flight to Argentina, and worked his way through school and university. He is now a lawyer at the Supreme Court in the Chilean capital Santiago.

Hempel and lawyers at the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights say they have catalogued testimonies of physical and sexual abuse, the use of electric shocks and of drugs to dope young sect members and keep them obedient.

On a visit to Berlin the softly-spoken lawyer said that his suit would charge "that nearly 300 German citizens were enslaved for decades and abused, and that the Chilean and German states connived with this and were collaborators with the (former Chilean dictator Augusto) Pinochet regime in this violence".

Since Pinochet stepped down in 1990, Chile's National Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a panel on political imprisonment and torture have documented the sect's links to the dictator's DINA secret police, which used it as a secret torture centre. In January, former DINA chief Manuel Contreras received a 10-year jail sentence for the 1976 kidnap of three left-wing opponents of the Pinochet regime - one of them a pregnant woman - last seen alive in Colonia Dignidad. Condemned with him were other DINA officers and sect leaders including Hopp, who could not be sentenced as he had already fled Chile.

FROM TORTURE TO TOURISM

Today Colonia Dignidad, rebranded as "Villa Baviera" in the late 1980s, wants to put its macabre history behind it and promote itself as a tourist destination. After Schaefer's death the Chilean state put the property under legal administration to make provisions for the payment of compensation to Schaefer's victims. It has a hotel, and offers horse riding and weddings. Ageing survivors of the sect now relax together watching television, strictly forbidden in Schaefer's time.

"The idea is for Villa Baviera to no longer be isolated but open to visitors all year long," said tourism manager Anna Schnellenkamp.

For Schmidtke, there is no forgetting. He says Hopp is a coward for failing to use his position to speak out about what was happening. He also believes Hopp knows where the sect's fortunes have been stashed offshore, money he says should go to Schaefer's victims.

"So many people have to live with the consequences of this evil regime and Dr. Hopp is one of the people most to blame," said Schmidtke.

For now Hopp, who keeps a low profile, is free to move about Germany or even leave the country, but will probably not do so "because he would run the risk of being extradited to Chile", prosecutor Menden said. "He's relatively safe here."

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Esteban Medel and Rodrigo Gutierrez of Reuters Television in Chile; Editing by Simon Robinson and Sonya Hepinstall)

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