During the Pinochet rule in Chile, human rights activist
José Zalaquett was twice arrested and ultimately forced
into exile. As a committed lawyer, the government tried to
stop him from defending human rights. Here, he shares his
story and thoughts of what the figure of Augusto Pinochet
When Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile, 40 years
ago, law Professor José Zalaquett was lecturing at the
Universidad de Chile. Even though the news didn't
surprise him at the time, the days that followed seemed
more like a film script.
"We could see the coup coming. It was like an announced
Greek tragedy, where everybody knows the end - but you
cannot avoid it," he said.
As Pinochet was taking power by force, Zalaquett, his then wife
and two young daughters left their home with a few possessions
and went to live in relative safety with a friend on the outskirts of
There, they spent hours gathered around the television watching
events unfold, including the death of President Allende and the
statements of the new authorities, publicly promising to
“eradicate the Marxist cancer in Chile”.
Shortly after taking office, the military authorities published lists
of people they were looking to arrest. José’s boss appeared on
A dangerous job
Undeterred by the potential threat to the safety of both himself
and his family, a few months after the coup, José joined the
Comité pro Paz. It was a new church based organization that
took on the risky job of documenting abuses and providing legal
aid to detainees and their relatives.
José was in charge of collating information about hundreds of
detained or missing men and women. Events unfolded rapidly
and life for Chileans became almost unrecognizable. Political
parties and trade unions were banned, detentions of activists
escalated and a curfew was imposed, meaning that no one could
be seen on the streets between midnight and 6am.
"The military government imposed a very severe control … if you were on the street between those times you
could be shot," José remembers.
People detained were immediately taken to centres across the country, some of them secret. Around 18,000 people
ended up in the Estadio Nacional, one of Chile’s largest football stadiums, that was refurbished to accommodate
large numbers of people.
At the same time, the Pinochet regime established the DINA, a unit of secret political police in charge of carrying
out systematic arrests and abuses against those seen as opposing the regime. People were kidnapped from their
homes, at the workplace , or in the street, - sometimes never to be seen again. As the number of people arrested
and disappeared grew, relatives of the missing began approaching lawyers such as José asking for help. Even
though there was little he could actually do, José began accompanying the relatives of those held at the Estadio
Nacional. They would form long lines to leave food and clothes with the soldiers, hoping they would reach their
"People need to know there’s a lawyer in charge, it gives them spiritual peace, knowing that they are doing
everything they can for their loved ones," he remembers.
"The military didn’t like what we did but [for a while] we were protected by the various churches."
When the luck ran out
For two years he worked tirelessly helping political activists find asylum in local embassies and, eventually,
secreting them out of the country. However when he was woken up by a loud knock on his door at 1:30am on a
warm night, it came as no surprise. José knew he was a perfect target.
"I remember I told my wife to stay calm, and I went to the bathroom and took a Valium to control my nerves. There
was every chance that I was going to be interrogated when they took me," he said to Amnesty International.
Behind the door, a group of police officers were waiting. In the course of a week, he says a total of 22 people from
his organisation were arrested. José was held in detention for two and a half months – he was questioned but not
tortured. However, on his release he was told to leave the country. He had no intention of doing so and after just 13
days of freedom he had another visit from the police.
"The civilian police asked me where I wanted to go and I said ‘nowhere’. So they took me prisoner and held me for
12 days." He believed it was all because he "didn’t get the message to stop the first time around".
José left Chile with two military officers walking him all the way to his plane, where they sat him down and
buckled his seatbelt. He moved first to France and then to the USA, where he joined Amnesty International and a
number of other Chilean exiles working to raise awareness of the human rights situation in the South American
country. He was president of the organization’s International Executive Committee and later Deputy Secretary
Pinochet’s legacy of fear and repression
It would take15 years of exile before José could
return home to his country.
In 1990 Pinochet was ousted, as a result of a
referendum in 1988 that led to national elections and
a new democratically elected government taking
office in March of that year.
Subsequently José sat as a key member of the Rettig
Commission that was charged with looking into the
extent of the human rights violations that had taken
place under the military regime.
He says that even though challenges remain, things
have changed for the better. Partly as a result of his
work 160 police and military personnel have been
arrested for their part in Pinochet-era abuses. These
and many others are currently facing trial.
"In Chile, no one argues about what happened. The newspapers that supported the military regime stopped talking
about the "alleged" disappeared and now they talk about the disappeared. And even private TV channels show
documentaries depicting events at that time. The truth is no longer a matter of debate," he says.
"Today, Pinochet is a bad memory. He was the visible face of a junta that governed for 17 years. It’s a reprehensible
stigma for the country and the world."