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Ex-general on lam stirs `dirty war' rivalries

Reviving debate among Chileans, a Pinochet-era army officer declares, `I openly rebel' against his rights abuse conviction.

June 16, 2007|Claudia Lagos and Patrick J. McDonnell | Special to The Times

SANTIAGO, CHILE — The case of a convicted ex-general who went on the lam this week and released a videotaped statement declaring his innocence has roiled Chile and renewed debate about the fate of officers involved in the past "dirty war."

Former Gen. Raul Iturriaga Neumann went underground rather than report Monday for the start of a five-year prison term for the kidnapping of a political activist arrested in 1974 and presumed dead.

"For years I've accepted injustice," he declared angrily in the video widely shown on television here. "Not anymore!"

Iturriaga, once a high-ranking officer in the notorious former Directorate of National Intelligence, or DINA, is one of the best-known convicted human rights abusers from the 1973-90 dictatorship of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Iturriaga has denied any role in the disappearance of Luis Dagoberto San Martin, then 21, last seen at a clandestine lockup nicknamed the "Sexy Blindfold" and "the Discotheque" because of sexual abuse inflicted on blindfolded prisoners as loud music masked their screams.

The ex-general was an aide to Gen. Manuel Contreras, the ex-DINA chief convicted in the 1976 car bombing in Washington that killed Orlando Letelier, an exiled former Chilean foreign minister, and an American colleague.

Human rights activists accused Iturriaga of trying to turn his case into a broader cause to torpedo cases pending against about 500 former military men.

"There's no doubt that what Iturriaga wants to do is generate a political act," said Nelson Caucoto, an attorney working with the prosecution. "This is in the realm of sedition."

With his public manifesto, Iturriaga has emerged as the voice of former junta officers now calling themselves victims in the face of aggressive prosecutions.

"I openly rebel before this arbitrary, biased, unconstitutional and anti-judicial conviction," Iturriaga said. "I don't accept it!"

Television broadcast video of Iturriaga reading his statement, and newspapers printed the text.

The resulting uproar underscores the deep divisions that remain in Chile about the legacy of dictatorship, 17 years after democracy was restored.

Tens of thousands of people lined up to pay homage to Pinochet after his death last year. The spectacle was a humiliation for President Michelle Bachelet, a former political prisoner of his regime, which toppled democratically elected President Salvador Allende. Various cases alleging abuse and corruption were pending against Pinochet when he died.

With Iturriaga on the loose, authorities stepped up border controls to keep him from leaving the country. Officials have called on him to surrender, and express fears that a network of sympathizers may be aiding him.

But Friday, the head of the Chilean army, Gen. Oscar Izurieta, said "there are no networks of support" for the fugitive. The current military leadership has distanced itself from those who served under Pinochet.

Defense Minister Jose Goni said the fugitive general "had a just trial and every opportunity to defend himself."

Former officers have come forward to laud their ex-comrade. A spokesman for retired officers, former naval Capt. Hernan Bayas, warned of repercussions if human rights cases were to proceed.

"We have knocked on all the doors seeking a re-encounter among Chileans," Bayas told the media here. "Sooner or later, there will be a storm."

But human rights activists said the controversy demonstrated the urgent need to bring former abusers to justice as a path toward national healing.

"We know that Iturriaga was one of the bloodiest torturers," said Lorena Pizarro, president of a group of "dirty war" victims' families. "Now we see his cowardice, even as he speaks of military honor."

Besides the conviction here, Iturriaga was convicted in Italy in absentia and faces charges in Argentina in connection with attacks on Chilean dissidents abroad conducted as part of Operation Condor, in which former South American dictatorships hunted down enemies beyond their borders. Iturriaga is also wanted in Spain.

patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

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

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