Life Under Pinochet: ‘I Remember Being Shown Some Very Severe Signs of Torture’

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In advance of the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30th, we have the following feature on Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

Roger Plant joined Amnesty International in 1972 to cover the organization’s work on Latin America. A few months after Pinochet took power by force, he went to Chile to document the arbitrary detentions, torture and disappearances. The result was a groundbreaking report that helped shine a light on the reality of life in the Latin-American country.

As a young researcher, Roger Plant had only been working for Amnesty International for less than a year when Augusto Pinochet launched his coup d’état in 1973. With his feet barely under the desk, it was a baptism of fire – a seminal moment that would eventually define his career.

“The day of the coup, I was in London. I was at home when I was called and we rushed into immediate action. I remember very quickly contacting various Chilean friends and contacts, trying to get a picture together of what was happening.”

A few months later, he was sitting on a plane at London’s Heathrow airport bound for Santiago, Chile via New York. Following a phone conversation with Amnesty International’s General Secretary, the late Martin Ennals, he was still unsure if he would be allowed into the country.

“Martin Ennals wanted us to go as soon as we could. I remember at Heathrow airport there was a message for me and I called Martin and he said, ‘Roger, we heard from the Foreign Minister that the delegation will not be allowed to enter Chile, you will never be able to go ahead.’ I got on the plane slightly disturbed and when I got to New York, I contacted Martin and he said ‘I’m glad to say that the Chileans have changed their minds and you will be allowed in after all.’”

This was the first visit to monitor the illegal detentions, torture and disappearances that were taking place in the Latin-American country under General Pinochet’s brutal regime.

Entering Unfriendly Territory
But entering a country in the midst of a human rights crisis, as thousands of social activists, dissidents, teachers, lawyers and trade unionists were being rounded up, detained, tortured and disappeared was no simple task.

As part of a team of three, Roger crossed Santiago’s airport doors with Frank Newman, a law professor in the University of California, and Judge Bruce Sandler, presiding Judge of the Supreme Court of Orange County, California.

jjbO8GI3gCyO3CkpCM0OZrdlXr-CHgSk72u1QLXzOhQ,ETIalxkBzHjUACrubGRd33-1WaKmud5lu9tGrj555dwWhile the Chilean authorities had agreed to the visit, it was to be strictly controlled. The security services would try to prevent the team from gaining access to the very places that they wanted to see. Those centers that would later become renowned for the abuses that defined Pinochet’s 17 year rule. Roger and his colleagues gave their minders the slip.

“It was a terrible situation. Within a couple of days, I was inside the National Stadium, which was by then being emptied,” Roger recalls.

“They tried very hard not to let us go. We [were] ‘guided’ by some Chilean government officials, but I remember getting away from them and being able talk to some of the political prisoners. It was a very strange situation. On the one hand, there can be a great deal of control, but on the other there can be a certain amount of chaos in a situation like that.”

Victims and Abusers
Over an eight day visit, the Amnesty International delegates met with dozens of torture survivors, relatives of activists who had been detained, and even government officials who tried to justify the abuses that were taking place.

m_7w5WtkZPc8RQVTskhG2YYV7fhw8uZFVO88Pjc-H6w,rEgIM2xY5nK4t6Um__1dyDWFA3VuSI27riTFqrpfQNM“I remember being shown some very severe signs of torture. I was given a list of people [who had been detained] that we circulated as quickly as we could afterwards. It was all very quick because we were running around getting as much information as we could, but knowing that the military was going to be coming along, pushing you, stopping you, moving you along as quickly as possible.”

“It was a mix of talking to some very brave people who were working directly with the political prisoners and talking to some of the government officials like the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Interior and the Minister of Justice. And we were also talking to a number of the diplomats who were also doing everything they could to intervene on behalf of those who were at risk.”

The accounts they received from activists and government representatives were completely opposed.

“It was extremely depressing to meet with the entire general council of the Bar Association which was absolutely denying everything, justifying everything. And as we found out over 90% of the prisoners and prisons were under the control of the Ministries of Defense and Interior. So, what you had was a façade of justice.”

The Report
Roger returned to London after eight days in Chile to write one of the first reports that documented the shocking abuses taking place under Pinochet’s rule.

The document included dozens of testimonies of arbitrary detentions, torture and disappearances and sparked a global call for action. It catapulted an international campaign to help those at risk.

“Pinochet was getting a fair amount of support in the U.S. at that time, but everything in Chile was completely overwhelmed by the military who were keeping a state of siege. There was no rule of law whatsoever – it was just a façade.”

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10 thoughts on “Life Under Pinochet: ‘I Remember Being Shown Some Very Severe Signs of Torture’

  1. It's obvious that governments (not only the US one, but every government) use torture to find out information or to make people keep quiet…

  2. You can never find out the full story, but we all know torture is still commonly used. I don't know if there is anything we can do about it.

  3. Torture comes in many forms and colors: you can phisically hurt someone, you can deprive him or her of food and water, you can provoke emotional or psychological pain, and so on. Torture isn't necessarily a way to hurt people, it's a way to show them they're irelevant, to belittle people. For example, I thought it was very demeaning that prisoners from Guantanamo that were holding a hunger strike because of the conditions they were kept, were force-fed

  4. Torture is one of the most horrific experiences a man can go through, and yet it's still practiced all over the world. I was just recently reading an article about how authorities think it's too humane to kill death row inmates using more gentle methods, which would not induce pain, and that the entire goal of the procedure is to make them suffer like their victims did…

  5. I don't think there is anything more demeaning than torture. When it is applied to you, you simply stop being a human.

  6. The fact is torture is still of common use. The things we see in movies are not so far fetched. You can't really understand what this does to a person if you've never went through it….and I hope none of us ever will.

  7. Movies have always depicted torture as a terrible thing and they;ve always shown peopel screaming in pain. My grandfather told me the real torture begins when you don't have the energy to scream anymore and you just suffer quietly

  8. I have never experienced or met someone who experienced torture in any way, but i think it's a terrible thing and a dirty method.