Victims of Pinochet's police prepare to reveal details of rape and torture

AS THE legal battle over the fate of Augusto Pinochet, former dictator, life senator and alleged mass murderer, reaches its climax in the House of Lords this week, few will be watching with more interest than Christina Godoy-Navarrete and Sara De Witt.

They are among four former political prisoners of the Chilean military junta who have asked the Attorney General to charge General Pinochet with torture and kidnapping. What happens to that, as well as the extradition request for him from Spain, will depend on whether the Law Lords decide that the general has immunity from prosecution as a former head of state.

Ms Godoy-Navarrete and Ms De Witt, both now settled in London, know that any future legal action would force them to make public details of the brutality and sadistic sexual degradation to which they were subjected by General Pino-chet's secret police.

Ms Godoy-Navarrete, a consultant clinical scientist, and Ms De Witt, a social worker, took their decision after talking at length to their families, fellow victims and friends. It involved having to tell their children fully for the first time what they had gone through.

When General Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende's democratically elected government in September 1973 the women were student activists aged 20 and 22. Ms Godoy-Navarrete was arrested shortly afterwards. Hundreds had already been killed, but she was comparatively lucky, released after being beaten and given electric shock treatment. Ms De Witt escaped the first wave of arrests.

But with the creation of the secret police force, Dina, and their specialist torture centres came a new sweep. Ms Godoy-Navarrete was picked up in December 1974 and Ms De Witt a few months later. They ended up in two of the most notorious of the torture houses, Jose Domingo Canas and the Villa Grimaldi. Their families did not know where they were. Ms Godoy- Navarrete's husband, Roberto, also wanted, was in hiding.

Prisoners at both centres were subjected to electric shocks, severe beatings, suspensions from ceilings until their wrists tore, and rapes.

Ms Godoy-Navarrete recalled: "The torture took place daily. We would be blindfolded, strapped to beds and then it would begin. There were electric shocks administered to all over our bodies, and then there would be a rape.

"Although we were blindfolded we found ways of taking a look. In particular, some of the women including, myself, recognised one of the men who raped us. He is still in Chile, he is free. The living conditions were awful. There was just one toilet for over 100 people. Instead of toilet paper we were given pages from books by writers and philosophers to use. The secret police wanted to show their contempt for ideas. They thought ideas were dangerous."

One of the first things Ms De Witt heard from a cell after her arrest was a man being beaten to death in the yard outside. She said: "They were beating him with what seemed like long chains. I can still hear the noise it made, and then the crying of the young man, eventually it stopped. I saw him later. His whole body was swollen. It was red and blue, and you could not recognise his face. His name was Cedomil Lauzic."

Ms De Witt was put through the ritual of electric shocks, beatings and sexual degradation. "One day I was tortured from 11 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon with electric shocks. Near the end I could not breathe and my heart stopped. They massaged my heart, and they stopped hurting me for that day. But it began again the next morning," she said.

The women were eventually moved to an ordinary prison and later freed. Staying in Chile became impossible due to constant official harassment and they finally came to Britain and settled here.

Since the arrest of General Pinochet, Ms Godoy-Navarrete and Ms De Witt have, after work, being taking part in vigils and protest meetings to campaign against the dropping of charges against him. They say they have been overwhelmed by the support they have received.

Ms De Witt said: "The arrest of Pinochet was so surprising and wonderful. I had come to believe he was omnipotent and suddenly I realised he was not. We were disappointed by the High Court decision on immunity, but we are very hopeful about the House of Lords ..."

Ms Godoy-Navarrete added: "It is not about vengeance. Even if at the end of the day he does not go to prison after conviction, it will be an acknowledgement that something very wrong was done. He had never ever said sorry for what he did.

"It may also lead to finding out what happened to those who disappeared who were never seen again. Compared to them, the rest of us were lucky."

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