PARIS – A French court put 14 former Chilean officials on trial in absentia Wednesday over the disappearance of French citizens under the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The 14, mostly former high-ranking military officials, face charges including kidnapping and torture and are the subject of international arrest warrants. They face up to life in prison, if convicted.
While the defendants did not appear in court Wednesday, families of the victims hope the trial offers some justice more than 30 years after the four Frenchmen disappeared — and four years after Pinochet himself died following failed efforts in Chile and abroad to prosecute him for human rights abuses.
The 14 are being tried in connection with the disappearances of the four men between 1973 and 1975. Among the disappeared was Georges Klein, the doctor of Marxist President Salvador Allende, whom Pinochet toppled on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody coup.
The defendants, aged between 59 and 89, include former defense minister Herman Brady-Roche and Juan Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, Pinochet's chief of secret police. The country's secret police, known as Dina, have been accused of many of the political killings and other rights violations during the "dirty war" waged while Pinochet ruled from 1973-90. Contreras is serving time in Chile for several rights violations cases.
All 14 defendants have refused to send lawyers to the trial. The Chilean Embassy in Paris said that as the Chilean government is not a party to the trial, it did not send a representative.
Pinochet and four other former senior officials were also initially named as suspects in the case, but all five have died since the investigation began more than a decade ago.
Sophie Thonon, a lawyer representing the family of victim Jean-Yves Claudet, expressed regret that the 14 living defendants were not in court to "explain, or listen to the testimonies of the people they have tortured."
"They know there is a trial opening today in Paris," she added.
In the courtroom on Wednesday, case folders were piled high and family members clustered to listen to the proceedings, some holding black-and-white photos of the disappeared.
Lawyer William Bourdon said the trial "will allow a precise, global, almost exhaustive judicial snapshot of the apparatus of repression put in place by Gen. Augusto Pinochet."
An official Chilean report says 3,197 suspected leftists were slain for political reasons before Pinochet left power in 1990. Many "vanished" — likely kidnapped and killed, then buried in unmarked graves — leaving relatives no word on their fate.
Besides Klein, the other Frenchmen who disappeared were Etienne Pesle, a former priest working on a land redistribution project, and Alphonse Chanfreau and Claudet, both members of the leftist MIR party, arrested in 1974 and 1975 as part of Operation Condor, a joint campaign by military regimes in the southern part of the continent to brutally stamp out leftist political movement.
No one in the trial is accused of murder because no bodies were ever found.
Chanfreau's brother, Alexandre, said he was hoping for "an honest trial that could put pressure on the criminals. ... They must pay."
About 30 witnesses, some from Chile, are expected at the trial. It is being filmed because of what is seen as exceptional historic interest.
The trial is based on complaints filed in 1998 by the victims' families, who maintain that the Chilean justice system failed to fully investigate the four disappearances.
Witness Eduardo Herrera, the last person to have seen Pesle before he was arrested, said the trial "will help maintain national unity after what happened in Chile. It's really a good thing."
The trial is expected to last until Dec. 17.