Torture survivor leads Chileans’ battle for justice over Pinochet abuses
Leopoldo García Lucero carries a disfiguring zigzag scar above his left eye where a police officer lacerated his face with the stock of a machine gun. The injury was inflicted nearly 40 years ago in the blood-stained basement of a Santiago police station during the military coup in Chile that toppled President Salvador Allende.
Next month, the 79-year-old torture survivor, most of whose teeth are missing from repeated beatings and interrogations, will discover whether his quest for justice, pursued for half his lifetime, has been rewarded.
García’s claim has become the lead case for those seeking compensation from Chile and a full investigation of past crimes. It could set international standards about what constitutes just reparation for those tortured and exiled from their homeland.
The inter-American court of human rights, the continent’s equivalent of the European court of human rights, is preparing to give final judgment on his lawsuit, which has taken 11 years to process.
In March García, supported by Redress, the UK-based charity that helps torture survivors, appeared before the Americas’ highest court – sitting in Medellín, Colombia – to argue his case before a bench of six judges.
A member of the Socialist party who worked at Santiago’s racecourse, near the presidential palace, García was close to Allende. The president gave him the nickname Filistoque, meant to convey that he was deft at reporting back on political meetings.
García was seized on 16 September 1973, several days after the military uprising. A police van appeared and officers took him to a detention centre. His left arm was broken in several places after being smashed with a rifle; he walks with a stick now and has never regained full feeling in his hand. Other injuries include cognitive problems due to being beaten on the head and damage to his spine.
“In the comisaria [police station] there were bags of concrete covered in blood,” García recalled. “They wanted me to tell them where the [Allende supporting] senators were hiding. They said they would kill me but first they would bring my six-year-old daughter, stand her in front of the concrete bags, and shoot her.
“During the night policemen took it in turns to hit me repeatedly with a baton. The hearing in my right ear was damaged.” After three days blindfolded and tied up in the police station, he was removed to the national stadium, where hundreds of opponents of the junta had been herded.
The torture did not stop. He was suspended with weights on his legs, kicked in the testicles and burned with cigarettes. “From 9pm to 7am they would take us out into the cold grass in the centre of the pitch,” he said. “They would call names out. People thought they were going to be released but when they went out through the black hole of the main door, they were shot. They called my name several times. I didn’t trust them and stayed still.
“We could hear rifle fire from the direction of the tennis courts where the women were being held at around two or three in the morning. We would wonder how many people had been killed.” Despite the executions, García said, he did not betray friends.
Later he was moved to a series of concentration camps. Some, he says, like Chacabuco, were surrounded by high voltage electric fences with a charge strong enough to kill.
In June 1975, García was among the first detainees expelled from Chile by General Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Up to 200,000 people were deported. Many found refuge in the UK, Spain and Norway. García, his wife, Elena, now 82, and three daughters settled in south London.
When Pinochet arrived in the UK for medical treatment in 1998, García joined the protests with other exiles demanding that genocide charges be brought against the ageing general. “They made a great mistake allowing Pinochet to leave the UK on health grounds. When he flew out he was in a wheelchair but when he touched down back in Chile, he ran out to greet the other generals. No more wheelchair.”
In 2002, with the help of Redress, García filed his claim for compensation with the inter-American commission, which vets applications to the court. His three daughters have married and live in Britain.
Clara Sandoval, a barrister, law lecturer at Essex University and consultant with Redress, appeared before the inter-American court to represent Garcia in March. “Up until 2011,” she said, “Chile did not initiate investigations into torture. So this is a fundamental case to test how a state has to respect victims of torture who have been exiled.
“Under the treaties Chile has signed, it has an obligation to investigate and punish torture. There have been no reparations for being sent into exile. Chile pays him a pension of £150 a month and has given him $8,000 (£5,000) as a special bonus.”
García’s lawyers have submitted a claim of £110,000 for “moral damages”. Sandoval said: “We have asked the state to investigate his torture. This case is not about money but about treating a victim fairly who has a right to reparations.” She said they had asked for a written apology from the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera.
García has been identified as one of the country’s 35,000 torture survivors by Chile’s Valech commission, which is investigating human rights abuses. Its report, published in 2004, said the names of torturers should be kept secret for 50 years.
At the hearing in Medellín, the Chilean ambassador, representing the country’s now democratic government, said it had put together a programme of international justice. Chile had previously attempted to have the case struck out on the grounds that it related to crimes committed before 1990 when the country ratified the American convention on human rights.
In its submission to the court, Chile said it has made adequate reparations to Pinochet-era victims of torture. By 2011, it had paid out $1.6bn (£1bn). Its compliance with its obligation to make reparations, it said, had been “exemplary”.
Because he was blindfolded for much of his ordeal, García has been unable to identify his torturers. “Most were in civilian clothes,” he said. “Sons of a bitch. The world should know what happened,” he said. “My life has been a burden since then to others. I have not been able to work. I feel like I’m dead in life.”