Accused from Pinochet’s Chile still in Australia
In January last year, Chile’s supreme court issued an extradition order for Adriana Rivas, a Chilean national who had moved to Sydney in 1978. The court was unanimous in its decision to make the request, namely because it involved allegations of “crimes against humanity”. While Rivas had worked as a maid for much of her time in Australia, her prior employment was very different: she had served as a principal assistant to Manuel Contreras, then head of Augusto Pinochet’s secret police force, the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA). Contreras was then the second most powerful man in Chile, with only the military dictator having greater influence.
Today, at the age of 86, Contreras is serving some of the more than 500 years’ imprisonment accrued for mass murder. Rivas remains in Australia. Eighteen months later, our government has not honoured the extradition request and refuses to discuss it. The Greens’ legal affairs spokesperson, Senator Penny Wright, tells me Justice Minister Michael Keenan “has been sitting on this decision for over a year now, while the families and friends of those who were tortured and ‘disappeared’ by the Pinochet regime are forced to wait for justice.
“There are serious allegations that Adriana Rivas was intimately involved in the horrific actions of the Pinochet regime, and she must face these allegations in the Chilean court. Torture and capital punishment are illegal in Chile and Ms Rivas is not at risk of being harmed.”
We don’t know precisely how many war criminals are living in Australia. Largely because it has rarely been a political priority. Journalist Mark Aarons has worked in the area for decades. He tells me “my estimate would be that there are several hundred war criminals residing in Australia”. Aarons inspired a federal inquiry into the matter in the 1980s, following a series of reports for ABC Radio. In 2001 he released a book called War Criminals Welcome: Australia, a Sanctuary for Fugitive War Criminals Since 1945. “That estimate is based upon what I’ve been told by the Afghan community, amongst others. Bosnians, Chileans. Who knows regarding DINA – I’ve spoken to Chileans who claim there are several dozen former agents here. But if you don’t have a standing war crimes unit, which we don’t in this country, it’s impossible to say what the numbers are.”
Defence of torture
Technically, Chile has made two extradition requests for Rivas. The first involved an allegation against Rivas –that she was involved in the “aggravated kidnapping” of Victor Díaz on May 12, 1976. Díaz was then undersecretary of the Chilean Communist Party. The report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation stated that he was kidnapped and taken to one of DINA’s main torture camps, the Villa Grimaldi. He was never seen again.
The second extradition order rests upon Rivas’s alleged involvement in the kidnapping of six other communists, variously academics, activists and union leaders. One of them was Reinalda del Carmen Pereira Plaza, a medical technician who was also five months pregnant when she disappeared. The report says: “Since the day of her arrest nothing is known about the fate or whereabouts of Reinalda Pereira or the child she was expecting.” Some 3300 people were “disappeared” during the regime’s 17 years. It’s believed most were buried in the Atacama Desert, or dumped at sea. The reconciliation report details of each of Rivas’s seven alleged victims end the same way: “All trace of him was then lost” and “They have been disappeared since that day”. Today, families of the disappeared can still be seen unearthing patches of desert.
In a rare interview given to SBS last year, Rivas, who has not been tried for her alleged crimes, spoke supportively of Contreras and the function of torture, but denied involvement in kidnapping and murder. It was an extraordinary exchange, notable for its lack of contrition and lingering ideological hatred. “Well, in Chile torture existed from as long as I can remember,” Rivas said. “It always existed. Everyone knew they had to do that to somehow break people’s silence. Because communists are close-minded. They have a much better military training than the military. Let’s talk about the things the way they were. It was necessary. I mean … the same as what the Nazis used, do you understand? It was necessary. And do you think that the US does not do the same? The whole world does it.”
Some of the documented torture methods used by DINA included the beating of victims, electrocution, and mutilation with saws and other instruments. Women were raped with dogs and blunt instruments. The barbarism, and easy conscription of civilians to administer it, would later inspire social psychological experiments.
Psychology was on my mind when I watched Rivas speak glowingly about her former employment. “When I arrived to the DINA, it was another world for me,” she said. “Clothing, we were dressed from head to toe, four times a year a complete outfit in the best fashion houses of the country. We were walking ‘dressed to the nines’. We were dressed when we had a gala, for example. A brat like me, middle class, with an average education, do you think I would have had the opportunity to go to dinner at embassies in Chile? Or ride on a limo? Or stay in the best hotels in Chile?”
As Rivas rode in limos and stayed in luxury hotels, her employers were murdering or torturing tens of thousands.
'Disappeared' family member fights for extradition
Lorena Pizarro was seven when Augusto Pinochet launched a military coup against Chilean president Salvador Allende. The Marxist president had presided over economic chaos and his popularity collapsed. With covert support from the United States, Pinochet made his move. As his presidential palace came under attack, Allende fatally shot himself in the head. Pinochet had triumphed. “Sometimes democracy must be bathed in blood,” the military dictator said.
Pizarro’s parents were anxious, and moved their children to their grandparents’ house. “We said goodbye to my father and we didn’t see him for many months,” Pizarro tells me. “Then our house was raided by the military and so began a series of events of persecution and repression in our family which ended with the detention of four uncles in the National Stadium, and a cousin in the Chilean stadium. From then on we moved house constantly until 1976 where we had to go and live clandestinely with my parents because they were both wanted by the military and, in December 1976, my father was kidnapped and disappeared.”
Pizarro is the president of the Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Chile. She is currently in Australia, lobbying the government to extradite Rivas. This week she spent time in Canberra.
“I don’t know why Australia has taken so long to grant Chile’s extradition request,” Pizarro says. “We don’t understand why Australia has not acted to provisionally arrest [Rivas] while they investigate the case. It has been confirmed that the Chilean state has fulfilled all of its obligations in terms of the extradition request, has responded to different questions from Australia. In all other extradition cases, the first thing that happens is the provisional arrest of the subject, while the investigation takes place. This is in the extradition act of 1988.”
Mark Aarons is not surprised by the government’s unresponsiveness. He’s spent many years as a journalist documenting the “bureaucratic inertia” stultifying reform, and seeking briefing meetings in Canberra.
“On this issue, Australia is a pariah,” Aarons tells me. “Advanced democracies have all got war crimes units. They have much more comprehensive legal basis to deal with people, and much more sophisticated methodologies than we do. Bureaucrats – especially in the attorney-general’s department – have obdurately opposed any comprehensive measures. They push the issue away from Australia and onto other jurisdictions. But the war criminals live here. And it’s always been this way. Since the 1950s. Also mixed up with this is the Department of Immigration, who are very protective and they don’t like problems or criticism. But the point is, war criminals are coming through their screening process.”
Neither the Australian government nor the Chilean embassy would discuss the Rivas case with me. Pizarro, and the many she represents, will have to continue to wait for a decision and pray that Rivas does not abscond.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2015 as "Tortured silence". Subscribe here.