SANTIAGO, Chile — Nearly 13 years after Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier was slain in Washington, a long-stalled effort to bring to trial the alleged masterminds of the assassination has gained momentum here.
Separate initiatives by the U.S. government and the Letelier family have increased the pressure on the Chilean judicial system to reconsider the case in the waning months of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's presidency.
For years, Chilean courts have rebuffed repeated demands for the trial or extradition of retired Gen. Manuel Contreras, a former secret police director, and his operations chief, Col. Pedro Espinoza. Both were indicted in 1978 in Washington for conspiring to kill Letelier and a co-worker, U.S. citizen Ronni Moffitt, with a remote-controlled bomb that went off under Letelier's car on Embassy Row on Sept. 21, 1976.
Letelier served for more than two years as Chile's ambassador to the United States under Marxist President Salvador Allende, and he was Allende's defense minister when Pinochet led a bloody coup against the Allende government in 1973. Later, living in exile in Washington, he became a leading campaigner against Pinochet.
Sticking Point in Relations
His assassination and the Chilean government's refusal to cooperate with the investigation have remained among the sorest points in U.S.-Chilean relations during Pinochet's regime.
Resolving the issue has not been made easier by Chile's system of justice, in which military courts handle some matters that in other countries would be handled entirely by civilian courts, and in which a case may have both military and civilian judges and pass from military trial to review by a civilian appeals court.
Last month the Letelier family asked for disqualification of the military judge in the case, Brig. Gen. Carlos Parera, after published allegations that Parera was himself a senior intelligence officer at the time Letelier was killed.
Parera presides over the military court for the Santiago district that hears all cases involving members of the armed forces. He turned down the Letelier family's latest request that the case against Contreras and Espinoza be reopened.
Now the family has gone to the next level of military justice, the court-martial, asking that Parera be removed from the case altogether because of his alleged role in the agency suspected of instigating Letelier's slaying.
The opposition news magazine Analysis reported recently that Parera was one of three officers in charge of foreign operations for the feared National Intelligence Bureau, known as DINA. The DINA foreign department allegedly arranged the killing of Letelier and at least one other exiled official of the Allende government.
Parera became commander of the 2nd Army Division, covering Santiago, in Pinochet's shake-up of the military hierarchy following his defeat in a plebiscite last October. Parera, the district's military judge because of his position as commander, ruled in February against the most recent attempt by the Letelier family to get the case reopened.
"Gen. Carlos Parera did not find any obstacle or incompatibility between his role as military judge in the case (and) his previous leadership of the foreign department of DINA," wrote Monica Gonzalez, a reporter who often breaks stories involving the military. "For any other tribunal, this would be a cause for disqualification."
Gonzalez disclosed Parera's past alleged DINA links in an article focusing on the broader allegation that several former DINA officers have recently assumed senior military posts. DINA was disbanded in 1978, in part because of the uproar over the Letelier assassination, and was replaced by the National Information Center.
The army declined to comment on the story. Later, however, Atty. Gen. Ambrosio Rodriguez appeared to confirm in a newspaper interview that Parera had served in DINA. Rodriguez said: "The fact that he (Parera) might have belonged to DINA was simply one more job he fulfilled as a soldier and in no case was an offense or a stain in his career."
That prompted Fabiola Letelier, Orlando Letelier's sister and a lawyer who has pursued the case, to file a complaint in the court-martial seeking disqualification of Parera. She said the judge who had ruled against reopening the case now turns out to be "a party in the dispute."
The Letelier case drew renewed attention in January when the State Department asked that a 1914 treaty between the two governments be used as grounds for arbitrating the U.S. demand for Contreras' and Espinoza's extradition.
At the same time, a U.S. judge in Washington asked the Chilean Supreme Court to require seven former government officials to answer written queries to determine whether there was a cover-up in the case. The Chilean Supreme Court had turned down a series of similar requests last year, but this time it approved the motion.
In reply to the U.S. interrogatories, Jose Miguel Barros, a former Chilean ambassador to Washington, said that other senior government officials had told him that Contreras planned the assassination. The testimony of Barros, who joined the anti-Pinochet campaign during the plebiscite, was leaked to the press, causing a storm of headlines.
But Parera ruled that Barros' testimony did not provide enough new evidence to warrant reopening the case. The family has appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
Smith, The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Chile.