Date: Mon, 4 Sep 1995 13:14:46 -0700
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Subject: Women: Chilean activist speaks
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## date : 03.09.95
Chilean activist speaks out
By Robyn Marshall, Green Left Weekly
3 September 1995
Miriam Ortega, a long-time activist in Chilean left
politics, arrived in Australia at the end of July on a
one-month speaking tour. Miriam spent 11 years in Pinochet's
prisons, where she was tortured continuously for 20 days in
a secret place after her arrest in 1980.
She was transferred to four different prisons, and spent
time in some of Chile's most notorious jails, where the
women political prisoners were denied access to books, radio
or any information about the outside world, and visits were
After her release in 1991, Miriam immediately threw herself
into political activities, despite being under surveillance
by the military police. She has been involved in community
radio in a poor barrio of Santiago de Chile, producing
programs for women and youth.
One of the major reasons for her visit to Australia was to
raise the issue of Chile's political prisoners. At least 180
people are serving sentences for offences which were
committed after the end of the military government and which
the new government deems to be politically motivated.
The Pinochet dictatorship lasted for 17 years after the
brutal overthrow of Salvador Allende's social democratic
government in 1973. Civil democracy was nominally restored
in 1989, but under Pinochet's firm control.
Pinochet was able to name 12 senators in the new Senate. The
civilian change was forced on Pinochet because the military
regime had so much blood on its hands, international
companies were reluctant to invest.
Patricio Aylwin was elected president. The Christian
Democrat, Eduardo Frei, took over in March 1994. The
military thereby cleaned up its image, and the government
has since received foreign aid and much capital investment,
such as that by BHP and Alan Bond's former group.
Ortega says that the same human rights violations are
continuing under Aylwin and Frei, but new laws have been
promulgated to make it legal. "The police state has now
been perfected and sophisticated so that the population can
be controlled", says Ortega.
All the 180 political prisoners, arrested under the new
democracy, have been tortured. There are 50 cases with proof
of torture and another 61 cases of political assassination.
But in particular it is the women political prisoners who
appear to have been selected for vicious treatment by the
new "democracy". Estel Afaro was the first woman arrested
under Aylwin's government; she was raped and tortured and is
still in prison.
Currently there are 18 women who have been imprisoned in the
San Miguel Preventive Detention Centre in Santiago since
June 1992. This prison is used to hold 800 male criminals.
The women are separated by only a metal door and need to
rely on the guards to protect them. This is despite the fact
that there is a prison exclusively designated for women in
the same city. The guards sell alcohol and drugs to
supplement their wages.
The 18 women are confined to 13 tiny cells, with one small
window with bars and metallic blinds and a metallic door
with a peephole. Three of the women have their children with
them, two less than six months of age. One woman is about to
give birth, as she was six weeks pregnant when she was
The bathroom for all the women has six small sinks, two
washtubs for the dirty laundry, three showers and three
toilets. The sanitary installations are in an appalling
condition and represent a health hazard for both the
prisoners and the babies living with their mothers.
The women have access to a primitive gymnasium for two hours
weekly. The only outdoor area measures 12 square metres and
lacks any privacy. The male prisoners throw garbage and
trash into the area from the towers and galleries above.
There is one male doctor assigned to the entire prison
population. The women and children do not receive any
specialised medical attention. In addition, the women
political prisoners have to pass through male sections of
the jail when they visit the doctor, go to court or see
their lawyers. The women feel an enormous added stress as
there are mutinies, fights and murders on a regular basis in
the male section.
It is against the Chilean Penitentiary Regulation, the
American Convention of Human Rights and the United Nations
declarations on minimum standards for the treatment of
prisoners to house female and male prisoners together.
Despite three years of denunciations and campaigns, nothing
has been done by the Aylwin and Frei governments to
ameliorate these conditions.
Political prisoners are still tried by military courts for
the crime of unlawful association - that is, becoming a
member of a political party or movement or group.
Arrested people can be held without charges for five days.
People are given huge sentences or the death sentence for
minor political crimes.
Two men who were arrested in July 1991 were kept in solitary
confinement and tortured to such an extreme the matter was
raised by the Human Rights Commission of the Chilean
parliament. But nothing was done.
In August 1994, Jaime Pinto, Jaime Celis, Julio Prado,
Patricio Gallardo and Guillermo Ossandon were sentenced to
death by military courts. There were a number of legal
irregularities, and an appeal is pending before the Supreme
Miriam Ortega is bringing these cases to the attention of
the Australian parliament.
It is illegal to demonstrate in Chile. Miriam attended the
Brisbane 50th commemoration of the Hiroshima bombing and
commented that in Chile it would be impossible to have a
rally in the park because you have to keep running to stay
out of the way of the police.
Ortega added that no International Women's Day celebration
in Santiago has occurred without arrests, beatings,
detentions and tear gas bombs from the police.
Chile is the only country in Latin American with no divorce
law. One woman dies every day due to abuse and domestic
violence. They campaigned for five years for a law against
domestic violence, but the law they have now is still
Women are extremely exploited at work, with very poor
working conditions. There are no government preschools,
primary schools or high schools that are free. Only 8% of
children who are literate can afford to go to university.
"The grassroots organisations will get stronger over time.
But we have the experience of the fight against the
dictatorship. The political situation is difficult. But we
are learning to develop a mechanism to overcome this every
day in our fight for justice, both economic and legal",
First posted on the Pegasus conference greenleft.news by
Green Left Weekly. Correspondence and hard copy subsciption