Why would the victim of a brutal military dictatorship appoint someone accused of covering up the regime’s crimes as ambassador to the country in which she once sought exile?
This is the question many Chileans are asking after the new government of President Michelle Bachelet named James Sinclair as Chile’s highest diplomatic representative in Australia.
In response, several groups have begun organising a campaign against the appointment.
In April, the National Campaign for Truth and Justice in Chile sent an open letter to Bachelet. It called on her to reconsider Sinclair’s appointment, given “his active participation in support of the Pinochet dictatorship”.
The letter noted the clear evidence of Sinclair’s involvement in the destruction of secret intelligence archives during his time at the Chilean secret police agency, the National Information Centre (CNI).
Sinclair signed a 1987 document confirming the destruction of 31 secret files that included correspondence between the foreign ministry and CNI.
The letter said Sinclair’s actions have “hindered and damaged the processes of investigations into truth and justice for thousands of people that were tortured, disappeared and/or executed”.
In a separate letter to Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop, the group points out that Sinclair is also “accused of violating Chilean law by infiltrating and exposing exile movements, a very serious accusation”.
“His appointment as a diplomat in Australia does damage to democratic processes and transparency of the Chilean government as well as international diplomatic relations,” the letter said.
The group has called on the Australian government not to accept the appointment.
The shock at Sinclair’s naming is compounded for many Chileans by the fact that Bachelet was herself a victim of the Pinochet dictatorship. After the torture and death of Bachelet’s father at the hands of the military, agents belonging to CNI’s precursor, the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), arrested the now-president and her mother.
They were subjected to torture and intense interrogation, including by the head of DINA, Manuel Contreras, who is now serving sentences totaling 289 years in jail for crimes committed during the dictatorship.
Due to contacts the Bachelet family had in the military, they were able to leave Chile. Like thousands of other exiles, they sought ― and were granted ― refuge in Australia, where they stayed for about a year.
Bachelet was elected president of Chile for a second time last November, running as the candidate of the centre-left Concertation coalition.
Local Chileans have also expressed concern that the naming of Sinclair could be detrimental to the campaign to have Adriana Rivas extradited to Chile to face charges for crimes committed during the dictatorship.
Last year, SBS revealed that Rivas, a former DINA agent who worked with Contreras, had escaped from Chile while on bail and had been hiding in Sydney since 2010.
Rivas was arrested in 2006 for her alleged involvement in the 1976 kidnapping and forced disappearance of Victor Diaz Lopez, a trade union leader and high-ranking member of the Chilean Communist Party.
The revelations led to a campaign for her extradition by Extradite Adriana Rivas Committee-Sydney (EARC-S) and Adriana Rivas Must Face Justice Campaign-Melbourne (ARMFJ-M). On January 15, the Chilean Supreme Court issued a request that the Australian government extradite Rivas back to Chile to face charges of kidnapping and forced disappearances.
Florencia Melgar, who broke the Rivas story on SBS, told Green Left Weekly last year that if Rivas was extradited, it would set an important precedent for others facing prosecution for human rights violations committed in their home country.
“Rivas's case is paradigmatic because, for the first time ever, we are dealing with a request from Chile to Australia to extradite someone due to human rights violations,” Melgar said.
“I would even go as far as to say this is the first time any South American country has issued such a request. It is now up to the Australian government to decide what happens next.”
On May 24, protests were organised by EARC-S and ARMFJ-M calling on the Australian government to extradite Rivas.
On June 4, the two groups and Stop Impunity in Chile Canberra will present opposition attorney-general Mark Dreyfus with a petition in support of Rivas being extradited. A protest is also planned that day outside the Chilean embassy to oppose Sinclair’s naming as ambassador.
So far, the Australian government has remained silent on the extradition request. There has been no official response to Sinclair’s naming.