SANTIAGO, Chile — The trial of Gen. Manuel Contreras for the assassination of Orlando Letelier is nearing its end--more than 16 years after the bomb slaying in Washington.
That, in itself, is a sign of how things have changed in Chile since the return of civilian rule in 1990.
Under military rule, the Letelier case posed little if any threat to Contreras, former chief of the regime's feared political police. But under civilian President Patricio Aylwin, Contreras is one of many military and police figures facing charges--and possible conviction--for killings and disappearances in the 1970s and 1980s.
There still are many obstacles to prosecution. But more progress on human rights cases is being made in Chile than in any other South American country where security forces under past military dictatorships were accused in the disappearance and killing of leftist opponents.
Amnesties, pardons and agreements between civilian and military authorities create formidable barriers to prosecution in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Although five members of former military juntas in Argentina were convicted and imprisoned for human rights abuses, President Carlos Saul Menem pardoned them in 1991.
In Chile, Aylwin's government has refused to back down in the face of military grumbling as human rights lawyers and some judges have doggedly pursued human rights cases. The most famous and emblematic case is that of Letelier, a well-known Socialist exile who was killed by a bomb on Washington's Embassy Row in 1976.
Fabiola Letelier, sister of Orlando and the family's lawyer in the trial, said she sees a growing determination by some judges to pursue long-stalled investigations of human rights violations.
"There are heaps of accusations and legal actions in the courts," said Fabiola Letelier, 62. "It all comes out in the press. That is a big step forward. We know the truth. But up to now we have not obtained justice."
Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, left many legal mechanisms in place aimed at avoiding full-scale prosecution of military government officials. One major obstacle is an amnesty covering most political homicides committed between 1973 and 1978, when the amnesty was decreed. The Letelier case is specifically excluded from amnesty by the decree.
Some Chileans fear that convictions of military officers in the Letelier case and others could trigger a tough reaction by the army, which is still headed by Pinochet. In the past, the general has issued veiled but unmistakable warnings against meddling with his men.
Retired Col. Christian Labbe, who served as a key aide to Pinochet and still maintains close contacts with active military commanders, said such warnings are against political persecution of the past regime's officials, and are not meant to interfere with the legitimate workings of the justice system.
"We think that whatever is done with due process is all right," Labbe said in an interview. "I don't think there will be any serious reaction as long as things are maintained within due process."
Hiram Villagas, a lawyer with the Committee for the Defense of the People's Rights, said convictions are needed in human rights cases to show that the abuse of power will not be tolerated in Chile.
"If a society does not police its policemen, it runs the risk of falling under their power," he said.
In the Chilean judicial system, an investigating judge gathers preliminary testimony and evidence before issuing formal charges and starting trial proceedings, which consist mostly of interrogations in closed chambers. Here are some of the main cases currently being investigated or tried:
* Tucapel Jimenez. As leader of Chile's biggest government employees union, Jimenez was a well-known and influential opponent of the military government. A plainclothes squad, believed to belong to the regime's political police, abducted and killed him in 1982. Maj. Carlos Herrera, a retired army officer and former political police agent, is being extradited from Argentina to answer charges in the case. Herrera is expected to provide evidence against other ex-agents who participated in the killing, prosecution lawyers say.
* Los Degollados. The bodies of three Communists, one a high official in the then-clandestine party, were found in 1985 on the outskirts of Santiago with their throats slit-- degollados. Sixteen members of the uniformed national police have been indicted for the slayings. A key witness in the case is Miguel Estay, nicknamed "Fanta," a former Communist who became an informant and police agent and has confessed to participating in the killings. After he was discovered hiding out in Paraguay, Fanta returned to Chile last year and turned himself in.