Family of slain Chilean singer seeks justice in US
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The family of Victor Jara claims to have solved the 40-year-old mystery of who killed the revered folk singer during Chile’s 1973 coup, and they’re preparing to prove it in a federal courtroom in Jacksonville, Florida, invoking rarely used U.S. laws that address human rights violations committed elsewhere.
The family’s civil lawsuit accuses former Chilean army Lt. Pedro Barrientos Nunez of ordering soldiers to torture Jara, and it says Barrientos personally fired the fatal shot while playing a game of “Russian roulette” inside a locker room in Santiago’s Estadio Chile, where some 5,000 supporters of socialist President Salvador Allende were being detained.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday, and the family’s legal team said Thursday that Barrientos was served notice when he opened the door at his home in Deltona, Florida, where he now lives as a U.S. citizen. Repeated calls to his home were not answered Thursday.
Barrientos, part of a group of officers who also face criminal charges in Chile related to the folk singer’s killing, has denied all involvement, saying he wasn’t there and didn’t even know who Jara was at the time of the coup.
“I do not need to face justice because I have not killed anyone,” he told Chilevision TV in May 2012.
Last December, Barrientos and another officer were charged in Chile with murdering Jara, while five other former military officers were named as accomplices. Most were detained, but Barrientos, who left Chile in 1989, has yet to face justice.
The criminal case has yet to be tried in Chile, but this civil suit claims that Barrientos led the “criminal enterprise.” It makes seven civil claims, including torture, extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity.
The suit invokes two U.S. laws, the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute, that give U.S. courts standing to judge allegations of rights violations committed in other countries.
Jara, whose songs tackled social and political issues, was swept up with thousands of other Allende supporters as Gen. Augusto Pinochet consolidated power in September 1973.
The lawsuit alleges that the folk singer was pulled from the crowd and was taken to a locker room inside the stadium where Barrientos ordered soldiers under his command to torture him.
Eventually, “Lieutenant Barrientos put a pistol to the back of Victor Jara’s head and proceeded to ‘play’ rounds of ‘Russian roulette.’ Lieutenant Barrientos loaded one bullet in the chamber of his pistol, spun the chamber and pulled the trigger, knowing that each shot could be lethal.”
Finally, Barrientos “shot Victor Jara in the back of the head at point blank range,” and then “ordered five military conscripts under his command to repeatedly shoot Victor Jara’s corpse” at least 40 times before dumping the body outside, the lawsuit says.
The suit doesn’t identify any witnesses, but attorney Almudena Bernabeu with the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, which is assisting the Jara family, told The Associated Press that Barrientos’ responsibility was verified by two witnesses who corroborated information supplied by former conscript Jose Paredes, who himself was originally charged with Jara’s murder.
The singer’s widow Joan Jara and her daughters Amanda Jara Turner and Manuela Bunster, who were 8 and 13 years old when Jara was killed, are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
The Pinochet dictatorship killed 3,095 people and made 1,000 or so others “disappear” during its 1973-90 rule, according to Chile’s Truth and Justice Commission. The government recently acknowledged 9,800 other victims, increasing the list of those killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons to 40,018.
About 700 military officials still face trial in Chile and about 70 have been jailed for crimes against humanity.
U.S. courts, too, have also taken action. Armando Fernandez Larios, another former Chilean army officer living in Florida, was ordered to pay $4 million in damages in 2003 to the family of Chilean economist Winston Cabello, who was killed during the “Caravan of Death” operation in October 1973. That case was the first U.S. jury verdict involving crimes against humanity committed on foreign soil, Bernabeu said. The Cabello family has yet to collect any money.
“The fact that the man responsible for the torture and death of Victor Jara has been living freely in the United States shocks the conscience,” said the center’s executive director, Pamela Merchant. “Human rights abusers should not be able to enjoy safe haven here without consequence.”
Chile’s Supreme Court has approved a judge’s request to have Barrientos brought to Santiago to face criminal trial. But that extradition request remains stuck in Chile’s foreign ministry and has not been sent to the United States.
Associated Press writer Frederick Bernas reported this story from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Luis Andres Henao reported in Santiago. AP writer Eva Vergara contributed to this report.