Chilean activist speaks out


By Robyn Marshall
Miriam Ortega, a long-time activist in Chilean left politics, arrived in Australia at the end of July on a one-month speaking tour. Miriam spent 11 years in Pinochet's prisons, where she was tortured continuously for 20 days in a secret place after her arrest in 1980. She was transferred to four different prisons, and spent time in some of Chile's most notorious jails, where the women political prisoners were denied access to books, radio or any information about the outside world, and visits were extremely limited.
After her release in 1991, Miriam immediately threw herself into political activities, despite being under surveillance by the military police. She has been involved in community radio in a poor barrio of Santiago de Chile, producing programs for women and youth.
One of the major reasons for her visit to Australia was to raise the issue of Chile's political prisoners. At least 180 people are serving sentences for offences which were committed after the end of the military government and which the new government deems to be politically motivated.
The Pinochet dictatorship lasted for 17 years after the brutal overthrow of Salvador Allende's social democratic government in 1973. Civil democracy was nominally restored in 1989, but under Pinochet's firm control.
Pinochet was able to name 12 senators in the new Senate. The civilian change was forced on Pinochet because the military regime had so much blood on its hands, international companies were reluctant to invest.
Patricio Aylwin was elected president. The Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei, took over in March 1994. The military thereby cleaned up its image, and the government has since received foreign aid and much capital investment, such as that by BHP and Alan Bond's former group.
Ortega says that the same human rights violations are continuing under Aylwin and Frei, but new laws have been promulgated to make it legal. "The police state has now been perfected and sophisticated so that the population can be controlled", says Ortega.
All the 180 political prisoners, arrested under the new democracy, have been tortured. There are 50 cases with proof of torture and another 61 cases of political assassination.
But in particular it is the women political prisoners who appear to have been selected for vicious treatment by the new "democracy". Estel Afaro was the first woman arrested under Aylwin's government; she was raped and tortured and is still in prison.
Currently there are 18 women who have been imprisoned in the San Miguel Preventive Detention Centre in Santiago since June 1992. This prison is used to hold 800 male criminals.
The women are separated by only a metal door and need to rely on the guards to protect them. This is despite the fact that there is a prison exclusively designated for women in the same city. The guards sell alcohol and drugs to supplement their wages.
The 18 women are confined to 13 tiny cells, with one small window with bars and metallic blinds and a metallic door with a peephole. Three of the women have their children with them, two less than six months of age. One woman is about to give birth, as she was six weeks pregnant when she was arrested.
The bathroom for all the women has six small sinks, two washtubs for the dirty laundry, three showers and three toilets. The sanitary installations are in an appalling condition and represent a health hazard for both the prisoners and the babies living with their mothers.
The women have access to a primitive gymnasium for two hours weekly. The only outdoor area measures 12 square metres and lacks any privacy. The male prisoners throw garbage and trash into the area from the towers and galleries above.
There is one male doctor assigned to the entire prison population. The women and children do not receive any specialised medical attention. In addition, the women political prisoners have to pass through male sections of the jail when they visit the doctor, go to court or see their lawyers. The women feel an enormous added stress as there are mutinies, fights and murders on a regular basis in the male section.
It is against the Chilean Penitentiary Regulation, the American Convention of Human Rights and the United Nations declarations on minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners to house female and male prisoners together.

Despite three years of denunciations and campaigns, nothing has been done by the Aylwin and Frei governments to ameliorate these conditions.
Political prisoners are still tried by military courts for the crime of unlawful association — that is, becoming a member of a political party or movement or group.
Arrested people can be held without charges for five days. People are given huge sentences or the death sentence for minor political crimes.
Two men who were arrested in July 1991 were kept in solitary confinement and tortured to such an extreme the matter was raised by the Human Rights Commission of the Chilean parliament. But nothing was done.
In August 1994, Jaime Pinto, Jaime Celis, Julio Prado, Patricio Gallardo and Guillermo Ossandon were sentenced to death by military courts. There were a number of legal irregularities, and an appeal is pending before the Supreme Court.
Miriam Ortega is bringing these cases to the attention of the Australian parliament.
It is illegal to demonstrate in Chile. Miriam attended the Brisbane 50th commemoration of the Hiroshima bombing and commented that in Chile it would be impossible to have a rally in the park because you have to keep running to stay out of the way of the police.
Ortega added that no International Women's Day celebration in Santiago has occurred without arrests, beatings, detentions and tear gas bombs from the police.
Chile is the only country in Latin American with no divorce law. One woman dies every day due to abuse and domestic violence. They campaigned for five years for a law against domestic violence, but the law they have now is still insufficient.
Women are extremely exploited at work, with very poor working conditions. There are no government preschools, primary schools or high schools that are free. Only 8% of children who are literate can afford to go to university.
"The grassroots organisations will get stronger over time. But we have the experience of the fight against the dictatorship. The political situation is difficult. But we are learning to develop a mechanism to overcome this every day in our fight for justice, both economic and legal", Ortega said.