The decades-long campaign demanding truth and justice for victims of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship scored important victories in Australia last month.
Pinochet led a United States-backed military coup that deposed socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973. He remained in power for 17 years, presiding over a regime of terror that left thousands dead or disappeared.
Ever since, his victims and their supporters have continued their fight in every corner of the world, including in Australian courts. In June, they won two legal battles.
The first centred on Chile’s request to extradite Adriana Rivas back home, where she is facing numerous charges relating to her time as an agent of Pinochet’s notorious secret police, the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA).
A Federal Court ruling on June 24 to dismiss Rivas’ appeal against extradition means her victims may finally see her face justice.
The other court case involved former Australian Army military intelligence officer Clinton Fernandes, who obtained the partial release of documents relating to Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) operations in Chile around the time of the coup.
Dr Rodrigo Acuña, an expert on Latin American politics and member of the Chilean community in Sydney, spoke to Green Left about the decisions.
Extraditing a Pinochet agent
Regarding Rivas’ extradition, Acuña said the decision was “extremely important”.
“It affirmed the previous ruling, by NSW Court Magistrate Philip Steward, that Rivas should be extradited to Chile, where she faces seven counts of torture, aggravated kidnapping and disappearance, which allegedly occurred in the 1970s under the US-backed military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
“Rivas was not only a member of Pinochet's secret police, but also the secretary of Manuel Contreras’ assistant Alejandro Burgos during the early years of the dictatorship.
“Contreras was the head of Chilean intelligence and died in prison in 2015 after being given a sentence of 529 years for numerous crimes such as kidnapping, disappearance and murder.
“Several of Rivas' DINA colleagues have also been convicted in Chile for murder, kidnapping, torture etc, so I suspect Chilean prosecutors have a strong case against her.
“This would explain why she has battled so hard against her extradition.”
Despite being arrested and charged in Chile in 2006, Rivas absconded while on bail and was allowed to enter Australia in 2010. Here, she worked as a nanny and lived in public housing in Bondi.
It was not until 2019 — five years after Chile officially requested her extradition — that Australian police finally arrested Rivas.
According to Acuña, her arrest was in large part due to “a grassroots campaign by members of the Chilean and Latin American community who reached out to Labor, Greens and independent politicians to pressure the Australian government to arrest Rivas and honour the extradition treaty Australia has with Chile."
While Rivas could still appeal to the High Court of Australia, Acuña said this would be “a very expensive route to take”. If she does not, the Australian attorney general could issue the final extradition order.
This would make Rivas only the second person in Australian history to be extradited to another country for the types of crimes she is accused of. The first was Serbian paramilitary leader Dragan Vasiljković, who was extradited to Croatia in 2015 to face court over war crimes.
It could also spark further such extradition requests.
“According to research I have come across and some human rights activists I have spoken with,” Acuña said “there may be other ex-members of Pinochet’s intelligence or military apparatus living in Australia — so what happens to Rivas is certainly important.”
But it is not just the actions of Chilean agents on trial: the role of ASIS agents has also been in the spotlight.
Asked what information is already available regarding Australian involvement in the coup, Acuña told GL: “What is known is that in 1973 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was informed that two ASIS officers were in Chile working with the US Central Intelligence Agency, which was there destabilising the socialist government of Salvador Allende.
“This information became available in the late 1970s during a royal commission into Australia’s intelligence services.” But, while at the time a few articles appeared in the media, ASIS was largely successful in burying the story, Acuña said.
Then “a few years ago, SBS journalist Florencia Melgar started asking questions again about these two agents in Chile and published a very good article on the 1973 coup on SBS’s website.
“In her piece, she even claimed that: ‘[o]ther accounts have emerged to show that agents from ASIO, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, which normally focuses on domestic security, were in Santiago well into Pinochet’s reign, working out of the Australian Embassy.
“It appears Melgar must have touched a sensitive point because, although she put in a formal request to the Australian government to declassify the activities of its intelligence agencies in Chile in the 1970s, she ended up receiving a letter from Tim Begbie — Senior General Counsel of Dispute Resolution of the Australian Government Solicitor — warning her that she risked legal prosecution if information about the ASIS agents in Chile in the 1970s was published.
“From there it appears that Clinton Fernandes has been pushing for the declassification of documents, specifically, the declassification of the ASIS station reports in Santiago in the early 1970s.
“He commenced this process in 2017 and initially had his request turned down, given Australia has far tighter restrictions around declassifying intelligence reports than the US.
“Since the US and the CIA have declassified enormous amounts of information on how it contributed to overthrowing Allende, the Australian government’s arguments about security, the national interests etc, have become much harder to justify.”
Fernandes and his lawyers took their case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in June, “in what was quite a secretive court arrangement. To the surprise of many though, the Australian government did hand over a series of documents to Fernandes regarding ASIS activities in Chile.
“According to Fernandes, these developments confirm that ASIS was conducting operations in Chile.”
For now, only snippets of information contained in the files have been made public, but Acuña believes Fernandes “will be writing about all this at a later stage, while the currently declassified documents will become available to the public in an archive.”
“It is important to remember that prior to the violent coup against Allende, the Chilean community in Australia was basically non-existent,” Acuña noted. “However, this changed after September 11, 1973.
“Today, the Chilean community is one of the largest Latin American communities in Australia, so there are many people (including myself) that will want to look at these documents closely and continue to support efforts for the government to declassify all relevant materials.
“As the son of a political refugee whose father was repeatedly tortured and illegally incarcerated by Pinochet’s thugs for over two months, I will always be grateful to Australia for allowing my family to settle here.
“On the other hand, I am absolutely furious that Australia’s intelligence agencies worked with the United States in violently overthrowing the government my parents voted for and supported, as was their democratic right.”
[Rodrigo Acuña is a freelance writer and host of Indestructible podcast, which will feature an interview with Clinton Fernandes in a coming episode. Follow him on Twitter: @rodrigoac7.]