July 31, 2015 / 5:04 PM / 5 years ago

Chile's Pinochet covered up report on death of U.S. student, documents say

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet stifled a police report that accused military officers of burning and killing a U.S. student in 1986, according to declassified U.S. government documents published by a research group on Friday.

The documents, revealed by the Washington-based National Security Archive, could shed light on the incident, which became a symbol of government brutality during Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.

The nearly 30-year-old case has come back into the public eye in the last two weeks as 12 ex-military officers were arrested in connection with the event, after former military conscript Fernando Guzman changed his previous testimony. Judge Mario Carroza reopened the case in 2013.

Human rights groups and prosecutors allege the officers used gasoline and a lighter to burn and kill 19-year-old U.S. student Rodrigo Rojas and seriously injure Carmen Gloria Quintana, a Chilean then aged 18, at a Santiago labor strike.

Official accounts had long held that the two victims accidentally set themselves ablaze, but Guzman said the officers deliberately set the two on fire and then abandoned them in a ditch in the outskirts of the capital.

According to the documents published Friday, an investigation by Chilean police at the time found that an army patrol was involved in the burning of the two youths, but Pinochet buried the findings.

“According to (name redacted), an investigation by the Chilean intelligence service has fingered Army personnel as clearly involved,” a 1986 secret briefing for U.S. President Ronald Reagan said.

“Nevertheless, the Chilean government, following Pinochet’s lead, is trying to publicly brand Rojas and Carmen Quintana... as terrorists, supposedly victims of their own Molotov cocktails.”

The National Security Archive, a non-profit organization which trawls through vast troves of declassified information in an attempt to tackle government secrecy, published the reports to aid in prosecutions, said its Chile project director Peter Kornbluh.

“With the opening of the case, I thought it would be important for the judges, lawyers, and families to have these documents if they could be useful to advancing the cause of justice,” he told Reuters on Friday.

Chile remains divided by the events of the 1973 coup and the repression that followed. President Michelle Bachelet, who was tortured and exiled during the dictatorship, has called for others who had information on atrocities to step forward.

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

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