(First published in Upside Down World)
Chile’s supreme court of appeals has temporarily suspended the exile sentence imposed upon an ex-militant of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). Hugo Marchant was detained in 1973 for distributing leaflets containing anti-Pinochet propaganda and later became a member of the (MIR) while in exile. Marchant entered Chile clandestinely in 1980 as part of a guerilla group opposing Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Accused of involvement in the killing of Santiago General Carol Urzúa Ibáñez, Marchant and his family were arrested and tortured by Centro Nacional de Intelligencia (CNI) agents. Following nine years of imprisonment, Marchant’s sentence was commuted to exile during Patricio Aylwin’s presidency. Founded in 1965 by left-wing students, MIR quickly established support in Santiago, especially from working class neighborhoods. MIR supported Salvador Allende; however the group expected more radical social reforms. Nevertheless, prior to the military coup, MIR began contacting junior officers within the army, urging them to support the civilian elected government. With Allende overthrown by Pinochet’s military dictatorship in 1973, MIR were targeted and thousands of members, including the leaders, were arrested and killed, with those surviving the clampdown fleeing from Chile.
Marchant’s previous attempts to enter Chile were quickly repudiated by the Chilean authorities. Now nearing the end of his first exile sentence, Marchant’s renewed attempt to enter Chile brought about a legal triumph. Upon presenting his passport, Marchant found himself detained by the police and subsequently deported to Buenos Aires, where he awaited the final decision of Chile’s supreme court of appeals. Echoing Marchant’s adamant opinion that legalities were in his favour, the judiciary declared the temporary lifting of the exile, granting Marchant fifteen days, starting on December 29, 2011 at 9:30am, to visit Chile and be reunited with his family.
The appeal has garnered a lot of media attention as well as support from human rights and activists groups. It is estimated that between 1500 – 2000 MIR militants have been killed, exiled or disappeared by the Pinochet dictatorship. A few ex-militants remain exiled; their sentences will be nearing completion between 2012 and 2014.
The supreme court declared that Chile had transgressed the 1993-1994 American Convention of Human Rights (Article 22:5) and the Pact of Civil and Political Rights (Article 12:4) which specifically states that no one can be banished from national territory and no one can arbitrarily prevent anyone from re entering one’s own country.
Ramona Wadi: How did you become involved in MIR?
Hugo Marchant: I was a member of Frente de Estudiantes Revolucionarios (FER) during my years as a student at the military high school. FER was the students’ social front of (MIR). In 1977 I entered the party while in exile.
RW: What was your role within the movement?
HM: I was to enter Chile clandestinely in November 1980, as part of the Central Force in the area of logistics.
RW: At what point during Pinochet’s dictatorship were you and your family arrested?
HM: On Tuesday September 7, 1980 at 13:45pm I was stopped by a score of Central Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI) agents in the San Pablo con Bandera province. My family was arrested by the same intelligence body in Serrano. The agents arrested my wife, Silvia Sepulveda Aedo, my daughter Javiera who was eight months old, and my son Pablo, aged 4. My son, Simon, was hidden by neighbors for three days in the attic of a neighbouring house. My wife held Javiera in her arms while Pablo played with a little car in a cell at the CNI headquarters. The memory of these moments – the interrogation and torture, is so horrendous I cannot bear to talk about it.
RW: How did your memory of Chile alter during the nine years in prison and the subsequent nineteen years exiled in Finland?
HM: The nine years of imprisonment and nineteen years of banishment, exile, have not alienated me from my country or the struggle for Chile. Through the press, the reading of several testimonies has allowed me to retain the reality. The cruelty of this enforced exile is the emotional upheaval. I cannot walk with my kids and my wife through the streets which witnessed our struggles. I have been unable to mourn at the graves of my fallen comrades in battle. I failed to attend my mother’s funeral. Exile has prevented me from standing with the Mapuche people who are under military occupation of their land by the government in power. I have also been unable to accompany the students in their struggles. And during each day which passes in exile, I know I am suffering a wrongful conviction since fighting injustice and oppression is a legitimate cause.
RW: Did the Valech Commission* report have any effect on your case?
HM: The Valech report notes the violation of human rights committed in Chile and supports our defense. However, a new trial never materialized for me.
RW: What was the response from the government with regard to your case?
HM: The government’s response was a resounding ‘NO’. Not even the unanimous decision from the Commission of Human Rights in parliament, neither the authorisation allowing us time to file an appeal at the Appeals Court, were an impediment for the government to express its hatred for our history.
RW: Has your case created more awareness about the plight of exiled political prisoners in Chile?
HM: The strategy of attempting direct entry into Chile through the airport has been effective in demonstrating the injustice of exile. The laws of the state are in our favor, however the government reacted violently and expelled us. The publicity generated by the media garnered the attention of various social and political groups both nationally and internationally, effectively extending our campaign to terminate this exile. Social movements in Chile have expressed support in a concrete way for our cause. On an international level, a complaint is being filed with the Inter American Court of Human Rights since the state of Chile is violating international treaties to which it is supposed to adhere to.
RW: What do you think will influence the final decision of the appeal? The government or the judiciary?
HM: This is clear – a look at the history of political prisoners and judicial proceedings will show that the judiciary is the only way through which the political confrontation between the popular sectors in struggle and the state of domination or governance can be expressed. With our campaign, political facts have been installed in the political scene. Therefore if we continue accumulating the social and political support with our campaign, we will achieve a force that allows us to realize major actions. Meanwhile our people’s advances in pursuing the fight for human rights will change the legal results. At the international level it is important to perform specific tasks to raise awareness and opposition, such as sending letters to the Judiciary, the Ministry of Interior, The President of the Republic and repudiating manifest injustices such as banishment, exile and forced exile. Collection of signatures should be sent to Comite Fin Al Destierro Ahora – our committee which campaigns to end exile. Every initiative in favor of human rights, every stand against banishment, is a necessary initiative.
*The Valech Commission report is a record of abuses committed in Chile between 1973 – 1990, documenting over 38,000 political prisoners – most of them tortured.