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Pinochet-era general on the run is caught

A key intelligence figure under the Chilean dictator, Iturriaga fled after his conviction in activist's disappearance.

August 03, 2007|Claudia Lagos and Patrick J. McDonnell | Special to The Times

SANTIAGO, CHILE — A fugitive ex-general from the Pinochet era was captured Thursday, Chilean authorities said.

Former Gen. Raul Iturriaga Neumann, 69, was arrested without incident in an apartment in the resort town of Vina del Mar, on Chile's Pacific coast, officials said.

Once a high-ranking figure in the military's feared intelligence service, Iturriaga is one of the best-known convicted human rights abusers from the dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. His case drew attention to right-wing discontent with human rights prosecutions.

Iturriaga was a commander at a clandestine jail known as the "Sexy Blindfold" and "The Discotheque" because of the sexual abuse inflicted on blindfolded prisoners as loud music masked their screams.

The ex-general was convicted in connection with the 1974 disappearance of a political activist, Luis Dagoberto San Martin, who was last seen at the lockup and is presumed dead. He denied any wrongdoing and refused to surrender to authorities in June for the start of a five-year prison term.

The government says San Martin, who was 21 when he disappeared, is among the almost 3,200 people killed for political reasons under Pinochet, who was facing human rights and corruption charges when he died in December at the age of 91.

Before going on the run in June, Iturriaga issued a widely circulated video manifesto railing against the "injustice" of the Chilean system.

"I openly rebel before this arbitrary, biased, unconstitutional and anti-judicial conviction," Iturriaga said.

The former general's denunciations were seen as a direct challenge to the Chilean state, which has been under democratic rule for 17 years. The government has pledged to prosecute human rights offenders from the Pinochet era.

Iturriaga's case highlights the outrage of former military officials now facing prosecution for their roles during the dictatorship. As many as 500 face charges of human rights violations.

But officers serving in the country's modernized armed forces refused to side with Iturriaga, proclaiming their loyalty to the elected government and calling his trial and sentence fair. The military and defense leadership uniformly condemned Iturriaga's flight and urged the fugitive to turn himself in.

Chilean authorities launched a major search for Iturriaga. He was also wanted in neighboring Argentina, where he was linked to the killings of a dissident Chilean general and his wife in a car bombing carried out under Operation Condor, in which South American dictatorships hunted down enemies beyond their borders.

It remained unclear whether the fugitive had received assistance from a web of right-wing sympathizers, as many here feared. Iturriaga was carrying a pistol when arrested, but put up no resistance, officials said.

As he was being transferred to a prison near the capital, hecklers yelled, "Asesino!" (Murderer!) and tossed eggs at the police motorcade.

"In this case now there is tranquillity for society," said attorney Nelson Caucoto, who represents the family of San Martin.

Iturriaga's lawyer, Jorge Balmaceda, said his client "didn't want to comply with a sentence that he considered unjust."

Among those also facing charges are Iturriaga's boss in the intelligence service, former Gen. Manuel Contreras, who already has been convicted here for a 1976 car bombing in Washington that killed Orlando Letelier, the exiled former Chilean foreign minister, and a U.S. colleague.

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Lagos reported from Santiago and Times staff writer McDonnell from Buenos Aires.

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