Pinochet Aide Liable for Chilean Folk Hero’s Death

     ORLANDO (CN) — A Florida jury on Monday found Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez, a former officer in the army of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, responsible for the torture and killing of iconic folk singer Victor Jara during a brutal, U.S.-backed military coup in 1973.
     Barrientos is liable to the plaintiffs — Jara’s 88-year-old widow and two daughters — for civil damages of $28 million, the jury found.
     The ruling is among the first to hold an officer in Pinochet’s army legally responsible for acts committed in service of the violent coup that unseated socialist president Salvador Allende and resulted in the torture and execution of thousands of perceived political opponents.
     “Today, there is some justice for Victor’s death, and for the thousands of families in Chile who have sought truth,” Joan Jara, who attended the trial, said in public statement. “I hope that the verdict today continues the healing.”
     The landmark ruling is particularly meaningful for Chile’s political left, which still reveres Jara’s songs on poverty and social justice and brandishes banners and flags depicting the face of the beloved singer-songwriter, poet and theater director.
     Musicians like Bob Dylan, U2, and Bruce Springsteen — who have all called Jara an inspiration — will likely be pleased with the ruling, but greatest triumph belongs to Joan Jara, the musician’s widow.
     She last saw her late husband on Sept. 11, 1973, the day the Chilean military turned on its own people and attacked the university where Jara worked as a teacher. Along with thousands of students, university employees and political activists, Jara was taken to Chile Stadium, where members of the military interrogated, beat and tortured them.
     According to court testimony, Jara was sent through a gauntlet in which soldiers kicked and pistol-whipped detainees, then they broke his wrists and hands so he could no longer play the guitar. Eventually Jara was separated from the pack, according to soldier José Paredes, who testified in an earlier proceeding that Barrientos shot Jara in the head at point-blank range during a game of roulette, then gave orders to subordinates to fire on Jara’s body more than 40 times. Military members dumped his lifeless form on a street by a cemetery.
     Joan Jara eventually found her husband’s body at the morgue, at which point “my life was cut in two,” she told the courtroom.
     In the morgue she cried silently, afraid that audible grief might raise suspicions, and tried to clean the dirt off Jara’s face with her tears. She fled with her daughters to England and filed a criminal lawsuit in Chile soon after, beginning a long journey toward justice.
     Over the years, Jara’s criminal case has been open and shut and reopened before a slew of judges. In 2004, Chile Stadium was renamed Victor Jara Stadium, and in 2009, his body was exhumed as part of the investigation then ceremoniously reburied. Soldiers have sporadically come forward about what they witnessed.
     In 2012, the investigation that began in 1978 finally resulted charges against Barrientos and seven other men implicated in Jara’s death. The Chilean government has called for Barrientos’ extradition, but the U.S. government is still processing the request, and the trial has yet to move forward.
     In the meantime, the widow teamed up with pro bono lawyers from San Francisco’s Center for Justice & Accountability and Chadbourne & Parke, LLP in New York to file a civil suit against Barrientos under the Torture Victim Protection Act, a federal statute that authorizes civil suits in the U.S. against defendants who have tortured or killed someone abroad while acting in an official capacity.
     The suit was brought in federal court in Orlando because Barrientos has been living in nearby Deltona, Florida, since 1989, when he reportedly lied about his role in the military on his immigration papers to enter the U.S.
     In advance of the civil trial, Barrientos placed his assets in a trust to protect them and retained Luis Calderon of The Baez Law firm, which is known for winning the high-profile cases of Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman.
     Several stipulations — or agreed facts of the case — seemed to weaken the defense’s arguments. It was undisputed that in 1973, Barrientos was a lieutenant in the Chilean Army at the Tejas Verdes School of Engineers based in San Antonio, Chile. He was also the commander of the First Section of the Second Company within the Bronze Battalion, and could issue orders to anyone except the captain within the Second Company. The entire Bronze Battalion, including Barrientos, traveled to Santiago for the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973. Perhaps the most importantly, from Sept. 11 to 17 members of the Second Company of Tejas Verdes were assigned to Chile Stadium and guarded detainees there, including Victor Jara.
     The burden of proof was lower here than in a criminal case, as plaintiff’s attorney Mark Beckett didn’t have to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt; he only had to convince the six-person jury that the greater weight of evidence showed Barrientos was responsible — directly or indirectly — for the torture and killing of Jara.
     As the trial got underway, Beckett called soldiers who had been under Barrientos’ command to the witness stand, and they testified to having seen him a combined 20 times from Sept. 11 to 17 at Chile Stadium. They said they saw him there with a brief case, observed him conferring with other officers, and even heard him bragging about having killed Jara with his luger.
     Barrientos defense was simple: he was never at Chile Stadium.
     Not only that, but Barrientos claimed in a deposition that had not heard of Victor Jara, Chile Stadium, or the torture and killing that happened there until 2009. Barrientos’ memory was poor, Caulderon told the jury in closing statements, but “Mr. Barrientos was not involved.”
     As for the soldiers who said they saw Barrientos, they were being pressured by the investigative police and were going along with what they thought they had to say to avoid being detained, the defense said.
     Barrientos’ wife and bodyguard both testified on the stand that they knew Barrientos wasn’t at Chile Stadium, but Beckett highlighted inconsistencies in those statements that left the witnesses looking sheepish.
     Despite Calderon’s efforts to poke holes in the testimony of the soldiers who said they saw Barrientos at the stadium, the jury found them credible enough.
     After deliberating for two days, the jury on Monday afternoon returned their verdict and told the courtroom they had found Barrientos liable for $28 million in damages.
     The money doesn’t mean much to Joan Jara, particularly because Barrientos’ assets are protected in trusts. The debt may never be paid, but today, more than 43 years after Victor Jara was tortured and killed in Chile Stadium, someone has been held accountable.
     “We believe that perpetrators of the worst human rights crimes should be held to account, no matter how long it takes or where they try to hide,” said C. Dixon Osburn, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Accountability. “We must strive for a world where all can live freely, unafraid to speak up or sing out for equality, opportunity and responsibility.”
     An assistant to defense attorney Luis Calderon said he has no comment on the verdict at this time.

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