On Tuesday night, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the former Dina secret police chief General Manuel Contreras, and his right-hand man, Brigadier Pedro Espinoza, for planning the 1976 car bomb attack in Washington that killed Orlando Letelier, an exiled socialist leader. They had been sentenced to seven and six years respectively.
While the ruling set off joyful and sometimes violent anti-military demonstrations in the streets of the capital, Santiago, it also raised the spectre of confrontation between the civilian government and hardline elements of the military. General Contreras, 65 and retired, issued a defiant pledge from a cattle farm where he has surrounded himself with armed supporters. "I'm not going to any jail as long as there is no real justice,'' he said.
Apparently referring to the civilian authorities, the General attacked "Marxist scum ... who act mercilessly to destroy the armed forces". With such sentiments shared by much of the military, it remained to be seen to what extent the General, if he stages armed resistance to his arrest, would receive support from military barracks around the country.
Chileans awaited with trepidation the response of General Augusto Pinochet, the man who ruled as military dictator from 1973 until 1990, when he allowed the restoration of democracy. General Pinochet, for whom the two convicted officers served in the dreaded Dina (Directorate of National Intelligence), remains army commander-in-chief, still an influential power-broker and a shadow over the shoulder of the civilian President, Eduardo Frei.
The Contreras-Espinoza case has divided Chilean society. Those who cheered the Supreme Court ruling, including relatives of Dina's thousands of victims, said the sentences were too lenient. Many called for life terms. Hardline military officers and right-wingers, on the other hand, claimed the verdicts had been political, a pretext to attack General Pinochet's military rule. This side clearly fears a "domino effect," with further human rights cases, possibly pointing the finger as high as General Pinochet himself.
Letelier and an American aide were blown up three years after General Pinochet overthrew the elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende. An American who worked for Dina, Michael Townley, as well as a Chilean and two Cubans, were convicted of planting the car bomb.