European Times: Sainte-Croix - Switzerland defends its left-wing martyr

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PERCHED ON the edge of the Jura hills with an Alpine backdrop, the small, peaceful town of Sainte-Croix is the epitome of a Swiss picture postcard. The townsfolk, the Sainte-Crix, are better known for producing music boxes and harps than for setting the world on fire. But they have not forgotten one of their more militant grandsons: Alexei Vladimir Jaccard-Siegler, thrice tortured and probably executed by Chile's military regime two decades ago.

His Christian names alone were enough to irk General Augusto Pinochet's right-wing supporters in 1972. Born in Chile to a family of Swiss origin, the 20-year-old student had inherited his father's militant Communist beliefs. He was interrogated and tortured for a day, then thrown into prison and tortured again when President Salvador Allende was toppled a year later. Alexei Jaccard disappeared in 1977, allegedly the victim of a deal between Argentina and Chile. From beyond the grave, he doggedly continues to haunt General Pinochet.

Alexei Jaccard is merely a single name on the list in Spain that prompted Judge Baltasar Garzon to demand the former dictator's extradition from Britain. He is one of 2,920 officially dead or missing during the 17 years of Chile's dictatorship. In all likelihood, the 82-year-old man in a London hospital would not have been able to distinguish Mr Jaccard from any other long-haired young opponent. Equally, were he not Swiss by his father, Geneva's public prosecutor would not have added his extradition request.

The Journal de Sainte-Croix, circulation 2,500, pieced together the "local" boy's fate in a detailed investigation in 1992. Its editor, Jean-Claude Piguet, admits Mr Jaccard's story took up an unusual amount of space compared with other profiles on local emigres. "It shook the local population," he says.

The Jaccards are one of Sainte-Croix's old bourgeois families. Transposed to Chile in the Seventies, they would have been closer to the wealthy establishment that General Pinochet's regime sought to nurture.

After he was released from prison in Chile, Alexi, the youngest Jaccard, fled to Argentina and then to Switzerland in 1974. He claimed his Swiss passport and joined the Swiss Socialist Party, rarely losing touch with what was happening across the Atlantic. The rest of his family was persecuted and fled to Argentina, only to fall into the lap of yet another military coup.

Mr Jaccard lobbied the UN until his family were granted asylum in France. Here the versions differ. In Sainte-Croix they say he became worried when they did not turn up in Paris, and flew to Buenos Aires. His political friendsclaim he was a hero, on a secret mission to deliver a message to Chile's Communist underground. Either way, Alexei was last seen by his sister and airline staff in the Argentine capital a day after he arrived. Then the trail descends into the underworld controlled by the generals. What is clear is that the young man with a Swiss passport disappeared into torture cells in Buenos Aires because of his Chilean background.

Through the years, Mr Jaccard's family, human rights campaigners, Swiss officials, and journalists followed a series of trails through Latin America. Once Argentina returned to democracy, a national commission listed Mr Jaccard in a group of 1,300 who were arrested but later seen alive in one of the junta's detention centres. Chile's inquiry 10 years later concluded he was seized on 16 May 1977 by Argentine police and the Chilean secret service.

Since General Pinochet was detained, the parliaments in Vaud, Sainte- Croix's canton, and Geneva have voted, purely symbolically, to back his prosecution. Neither is a hotbed of militancy. Even cautious Swiss diplomats are letting the press know they think it is ethically justified. Alexei Jaccard may turn out to be the pride of Sainte-Croix as well as Switzerland's most famous left-winger.