The Carlos Prats Case: An Historic Trial

Hernan Quezada C.
Prosecuting Attorney



The Judicial Proceedings in Argentina
Case Chronology

I. Background

a) The facts
On Monday, September 30, 1974, at approximately 0,50 horas, 12:30 AM in the city of Buenos Aires, Chile's former Commander-in-Chief of the Army, also former Vice President of the Republic, General Carlos Prats Gonzalez and his wife Sofia Cuthbert died from the explosion of a bomb planted under the floor of their car, between the two front seats and over the accelerator when they were arriving at their home. The scorched remains of the car and the victims' bodies were scattered over a radius of 50 meters just as they were returning to their residence. The bomb exploded after General Prats got out to open the garage door and just as he returned to the car, where his wife Sofía Cuthbert waited inside.

General Carlos Prats fled Chile September 15 1973, just a few days after the coup, to save his life from the menace of military officials who had seized power. His wife later joined him in Argentina.

According to the expert report prepared by Argentine Federal Police on November 6, 1974, General Prats' car was completely and irreparably damaged, having burned up after the explosion. Windows shattered in the building and adjacent homes and the garage door in front of the parked car was blown off.

Autopsy reports indicate that General Prats died from trauma, multiple viceral-vascular injuries, and internal and external hemorraging. His wife Sofia Cuthbert died as the consequence of the multiple bone-organ-vascular destruction internal hemoraging.

b) Threats and surveillance prior to the crime
The judicial inquest determined fehacientemente that General Prats and his wife had received numerous anonymous death threats and had been under surveillance in the weeks before the assassination. The government of Chile had been informed of these threats, including a direct threat to General Prats' life through an anonymous telephone call received September 2, 1974.

c) Chilean officials refuse to issue passports
The series of threats and constant surveillance convinced General Prats and his wife Sofia Cuthbert that they had to leave Argentina. However, their request to Chilean consulate officials for ordinarios passports was ignored and the passports were never issued. General Prats had left Chile in September 1973 on a diplomatic passport which had been issued him since he was Commander-in-Chief of the Army. His wife, Sofia Cuthbert had traveled to Chile only on her identity card. Neither document sufficed for travel to a third country.

The judicial inquest confirmed repeated attempts by General Prats to obtain the passports and the unjustified attitude Chilean officials assumed concerning these efforts.

The Report of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created April 25, 1990 after inauguration of the first democratic government of Chile's post-dictatorial period, referred to the circumstances of the denied passports as intrinsically related to the assassination of the Prats couple in the following words:

"In Buenos Aires retired General Prats knew he was under surveillance by informants, who he believed to have arrived from Chile in order to find something that could affect his honor or would allow them to point to him as the General at the service of Marxism.
During his stay in Buenos Aires his activities were closed watched, and in Chile and in other countries he was the object of open or veiled criticism by agents of the State of Chile.
For these reasons General Prats and his wife wanted to leave Argentina and settle in a country of Europe. In order to hasten their travel plans, Sofía Cuthbert de Prats in July 1974 requested passports from the Consul General of Chile in Argentina, informing the consulate that they would travel to Brazil. ... Her passport had been confiscated upon leaving Chile, while General Prats had a diplomatic passport, no longer in effect. According to the Prats family, Chilean diplomats were the only persons who knew of that the Prats intended to travel.
The passports were never issued. Official explanation, verified in documents available to this Commision, fail to offer a plausible reason for denying or delaying the passports. Furthermore, Chile's ambassador in Argentina sent the Chilean Foreign Relations Ministry a telegram, which he urged to be shared with the Commander in Chief of the Army, to advise authorities General Prats had received a death threat".

d) Participation of the Intelligence Directorate (DINA) in the crime
Information gathered during the course of the judicial inquest comprise conclusive proof that the DINA planned and carried out the assassination with its agents and with cooperation from an Argentina ultra-right terrorist group known as "Milicia." The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission reached a similar conclusion:

"Having analyzed these facts, the Commission has reached the conviction that General Carlos Prats and his wife Sofía Cuthbert were killed, in violation of their human rights, by a terrorist action of which agents of the State of Chile were responsible, and who are presumed to have belonged to DINA."

Decree law 521 of the Military Junta created the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) on June 14,1974. By Decree from the Defense Ministry, on August 6 of the same year, Army Colonel Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda was appointed National Executive Director. The Report of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined, however, that the DINA's beginnings can be traced long before the formal creation date, to November 1973, and perhaps earlier.

The same Report details other aspects related to the operation of the DINA. "In late 1973 or early 1974 the DINA began its actions in Argentina and later in other countries of Latin America."

Regarding its structure, personnel, and hierarchy, the Report states:
"..the hierarchy appears to have consisted first of a General Command in charge of the National Director, under whom were various subdivisions that carried out support functions and answered directly to him, as well as departments or sections, brigades and... One of the known subdivisions was a Foreign Department."
"…Formally, the DINA was accountable to the Military Junta and the Army Commander in Chief. The DINA utilized this direct line of command [under the Military Junta] to protect itself from any inquiry or intereference in its activities."

The DINA's actions across Chile's borders are confirmed by the Commission: "…During this period, the repressive actions committed outside of Chile against Chileans or persons connected to Chileans, are the responsibility of the DINA, specifically its Foreign Departament." It adds: "the foreign aparatus of the DINA appears to arise in April or March of 1974," under the "National Director of the DINA". Its operations "were conducted and coordinated in Argentina, but not only in that country, for the purpose of identifying, monitoring, arresting, and even eliminating exiled Chilean opponents to the military regime, or Chileans who lived abroad and participated in activities deemed dangerous for the military government."

The sentence dictated by Supreme Court Judge Adolfo Bañados in the case involving the assassination in Washington, D.C. of Chile's former Foreign Relations Minister Orlando Letelier, explicitly determined the DINA's nature as terrorist organization.
Clause N. 111 of the ruling states: "A profusion of facts lead us to believe that the leadership of the DINA accepted terrorist violence as a method for combating its political opposition."
Clause 120 of the ruling indicates: "This state of affairs suggests unequivocally that the DINA as institution accepted as viable, as has been said, the recourse of extreme violence to fight political opponents."
Clause 131 concludes: "… and other direct facts also show… that the DINA made use of violence as a system or philosophy."
This ruling, upheld by the Supreme Court of Chile in 1995, sentenced former DINA Director Manuel Contreras and the Operations Chief Pedro Espinoza, as authors of the assassination of Orlando Letelier, one of many terrorist attacks conducted outsided of Chile by DINA. The assassination of Orlando Letelier shared characteristics with the car bomb assassination of General Carlos Prats and his wife, which took place two years before.

Hernan Quezada on the Role of Augusto Pinochet
"Proof of Augusto Pinochet's involvement in the case can be traced specifically to statements made by Michael Townley in the United States, before Chilean detectives as well as U.S. prosecutor Eugene Propper in the Letelier case. He also made similar statements to FBI agents who investigated the Letelier case. Later, the hierarchical relationship between Manuel Contreras and Pinochet, lead us to presumptions concerning his role in the crime. Pinochet was General Prats's subordinate; a man Prats trusted. That makes the charges against Pinochet in this crime all the more serious."

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II. The Judicial Proceedings in Argentina

The judicial investigation opened in Argentina in the National Criminal and Federal Court N.1the same day the homicides took place. During the first years the court was unable to identify the authors of the assassination. However, the characteristics of the crime pointed to the Chilean military regime as responsible for planning and carrying out the crime.

When the participation of U.S. citizen Michael V. Townley in the assassination of former Foreign Relations Minister Orlando Letelier became publicly known, after Townley's expulsion from Chile in 1978 due to pressure from the United States government, the investigation of the murder of General Prats focused on Townley, due to the evident similarity in both acts of terrorism.

In 1983 Argentine courts petitioned U.S. officials for the extradition of Michael V. Townley, on the basis of probable cause of his involvement in the Prats crime. However, a District Court of Virginia rejected the extradition, as the evidence gathered in Argentina was founded entirely on Townley's testimony in the Letelier case, which was inadmissible in light of the plea bargaining agreement the U.S. Attorney General made with Townley.

In 1991 the investigation gained greater force. This was due in part by the publication of the Report of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Chile, which confirmed the responsibility of the DINA in the Prats-Cuthbert murder. The interest of Argentine Federal Court Judge Maria Servini de Cubria also gave the case new vigor.

In January 1996, Judge Servini issued an arrest warrant for the former DINA agent Enrique Arancibia Clavel who had participated in the surveillance of General Prats prior to the murder. Arancibia Clavel's responsibility was formally proven on November 20, 2000 when a Buenos Aires court sentenced him to life in prison as author of the double first degree murder and as member of an illicit association.

Meanwhile, another seven members of the DINA's Foreign Department were implicated in the Prats crime. The investigation made significant progress, culminating in November 2000 when the Argentine court sought the extradition of six former DINA agents: Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, Raul Iturriaga Neumann, Jorge Iturriaga Neuman, Jose Sarras and Armando Fernandez Larios. (Armando Fernandez Larios is in the United States where he completed a jail term for his participation in the assassination of former Foreign Relations Minister Orlando Letelier. Judge Servini will seek his extradition.)

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was also charged as intellectual author of the illicit association and for first degree murder. When the petition for extradition reached the Supreme Court of Chile, the high court decided that Pinochet could only be extradited if deprived of his immunity .

Interviewed by Memoria y Justicia on July 13, 2002, attorney Hernan Quezada stated:
Greater awareness exists in Argentina regarding the demands of international law. In the Prats case the crimes were declared not subject to statutes of limitation due to their nature as crimes against humanity, in recognition of the preeminence of international treaties over national law.

In Chile Poblete Cordoba is the only case in which the Supreme Court has explicitly recognized the preeminence of treaties on international humanitarian law. But after that case, the high court never pronounced on this issue again. It has accepted various motions for review, overturning sentences that applied the Amnesty Law, but its legal grounds have been different from those cited in the Poblete Cordoba case.

Case Chronology

August 6, 2001
The Supreme Court's Penal Chamber rejected the appeal filed by attorneys, Hernan Quezada and Pamela Pereira in late May 2001, seeking the extradition to Argentina of Pinochet and seven other defendants. The Court founded its decision on the fact that, so far, the Argentine court had only charged but not indicted the defendants.

September 12, 2001
The Supreme Court's Penal Chamber accepted the recommendation from the Court Auditor to authorize Judge Servini de Cubria to interrogate Mariana Callejas and Cristoph Willikie Fleent, former head of the DINA's Foreign Departament. However, the Court refused to allow the Argentine judge to interrogate Augusto Pinochet, due to his immunity from prosecution. This resolution revealed that the removal of Pinochet's immunity as lifetime senator only applies to the Caravan of Death case.

October 8, 2001
Supreme Court Judge Jorge Rodriguez ordered preventive detention of the defendants, upon request from the prosecuting attorneys. The magistrate resolved that Manuel Contreras could comply with preventive detenioncumpliera in his home and that Raul Iturriaga, Pedro Espinoza and Jose Zara Holger would do so in the Army Telecommunications Command. Jorge Iturriaga was ordered to enter Santiago's Penitentiary but was permited an exception due to his poor state of health.

December 14, 2001
Judge Maria Servini de Cubria accepted the petition from the prosecuting attorneys and requested the removal of immunity from Augusto Pinochet. However, the petition was never issued in Chile, prompting the attorneys to request, in April 2002 , that it be sent.

Hernan Quezada:
"The Supreme Court's ruling prompted Judge Servini to sent a writ requesting that Chilean courts issue their opinion regarding the deprival of immunity. This took too long in Argentina. The request was made 14 de diciembre de 2001 but it was not formally received in Chile until May 2002. The delay greatly affected the case, as in the meantime, the Supreme Court dismissed Pinochet in the Caravan of Death case for alleged dementia.

When the Supreme Court finally considered the immunity issue, the focus of the discussion was whether Pinochet needed to be deprived of immunity before Judge Servini could be allowed to question him. Only the Supreme Court's minority opinion sustained that it was not necessary to deprive him of immunity prior to questioning."

May 30, 2002
Supreme Court Auditor Monica Maldonado presented Judge Jorge Rodriguez her report regarding the extradition request. The document stated that probable cause existed regarding the participation of Contreras, Espinoza and Iturriaga in the crime, sufficient to indict them and seek their extradition. However, she indicated that even though the condition existed for extradition, the case should be investigated in Chile by Judge Juan Guzman, who had under his charge a criminal complaint for the Prats homicide.

November 8, 2002
The Supreme Court closed any possibility of bringing Augusto Pinochet to trial either in Chile or in Argentina in the investigation of the murder of the former Army commander-in-chief, by confirming the Appeal Court ruling of October 2002 rejecting the petition to remove immunity, a requisite for indicting Pinochet.

December 2, 2002
A unanimous ruling from the Supreme Court's Penal Chamber discarded the possibility of extraditing the former DINA agents to Buenos Aires. At the same time, in a surprising decision, the Supreme Court opened a case in Chile against the five defendants who formed the DINA hierarchy. This will be the first time that the assassination of former Commander-in chief Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia Cuthbert is brought to Chilean courts. Among the reasons the Penal Chamber cited for its historic decision is the fact that some of the defendants have been charged in other cases underway in Chile.

Hernan Quezada
"Like the Letelier case, the 1978 amnesty law cannot be invoked. Likewise, statutes of limitation are not applicable for these crimes… And the most significant aspect is that the judges' study on the extradition petition cites that probable cause exists regarding the participation of the five defendants in the assassination of General Prats and his wife. "

January 23, 2003
The daughters of the assassinated former General Carlos Prats and Sofia Cuthbert filed a criminal complaint against the DINA hierarchy in order to become parties of the case that will be heard for the first time in Chile.

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