May 26, 2008 / 6:03 PM / 12 years ago

Nearly 100 held in Chile dictatorship abuse probe

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Nearly 100 former Chilean soldiers and secret police from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship were ordered detained on Monday in the biggest single mass arrest for abuses during the period, judicial sources said.

Demonstrators dressed as prisoners perform in front of the relatives of retired officers arrested for torture during the military coup in September 1973, during a protest in Valparaiso city, about 120 km (75 miles) northwest of Santiago, May 4, 2008. REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez

Investigating judge Victor Montiglio ordered the detentions in a probe into the kidnapping and killing of 42 people during “Operation Colombo” early in the 1973-1990 dictatorship, during which 119 Pinochet opponents, many of them leftists, died.

Some of those held worked for Pinochet’s infamous DINA intelligence service, which ran torture centers where hundreds of people were either killed or disappeared during one of the darkest periods of contemporary Latin American history.

“This is excellent news, because Operation Colombo was also a case in which General Pinochet’s immunity from prosecution was stripped, and given the number of victims, is an emblematic case,” Sergio Laurenti, executive director of Amnesty International in Chile, told Reuters.

“But it is important that the police now furnish the necessary information to enable the courts to proceed,” he added. “There is a lack of cooperation from the armed forces and security forces.”

Among those being probed is former DINA head Manuel Contreras, already jailed for other abuses. Many of the newly detained will be held in military compounds.

Pinochet’s secret police collaborated with dictatorships in neighboring Argentina and in Brazil amid a wider crackdown called “Operation Condor,” and at the time explained away the disappearances in Chile by saying that the victims had fled the country.

They later changed their story, and said the victims were killed due to internecine fighting.

“All advances in human rights cases are important,” Justice Minister Carlos Maldonado told reporters. “Some cases are advancing more than others ... but I hope none is closed until all those responsible are found.”

Pinochet died in December 2006 without ever facing trial for crimes during his rule, during which 3,000 people died or disappeared, 28,000 were tortured and about 200,000 fled into exile.

Chile has long grappled with the task of bringing to justice the perpetrators of crimes committed in the Pinochet era, and relatives of victims say some accused have got off lightly and are being shielded by the army. An amnesty in 1978 provided no immunity for those accused of rights abuses.

Only around two dozen other security officials have been convicted of dictatorship crimes so far, while before Monday around 380 others were under investigation. Previously, arrests have been limited to small groups or individuals.

Additional reporting by Erik Lopez and Bianca Frigiani; Editing by Eric Walsh

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