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French court convicts 13 Pinochet-era officials

Thirteen officials who served under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet were convicted in a French court on Friday of kidnapping and torturing four French nationals. Two were sentenced to life in prison.

One suspect, 77-year-old Gen. Jose Zara Holger, was acquitted. All 14 of the defendants were tried in absentia, making the case highly symbolic.

Applause broke out in the court room among families of the victims after the reading of the verdicts. All have been seeking justice for the disappearance of their loved ones for decades.

"I was one year old when my father disappeared. I am now 37, so it is an entire life without the right to justice," said Natalia Chanfreau, daughter of Alfonso Chanfreau, a leftist who disappeared in Santiago, the Chilean capital, in 1974.

"There are still many things to do. I'd like to know where he (my father) is, and of course I would also like them (the guilty) to be in prison ... but for the moment, I am really happy."

Denise Chanfreau, her sister, expressed hope that the decision "serves as an example to other dictators and military officers protected by the law."

Friday's ruling went beyond the request of state prosecutor Pierre Kramer who had sought 20-year prison terms for three of the defendants and 15 years for the remaining 11.

Charges against the 14 included kidnapping and torture. The four men's bodies were never found.

The court sentenced to life in prison Juan Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, who at the time headed Pinochet's political police, and Col. Octavio Espinoza Bravo, No. 2 in the political police unit.

Three others were given 30-year prison sentences, six got 25 years, one received a 20-year sentence and one 15 years.

All those tried, aged between 59 and 89, are the subject of international arrest warrants, but Chile, like numerous countries, does not extradite its citizens.

Families of the victims nevertheless took heart in the convictions more than 30 years after the four disappeared. 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.

The 14 went on trial in connection with the disappearances of the four Frenchmen 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.

In an unusual move, the ranking state prosecutor, Francois Faletti, intervened Friday to tell the court that the trial has been "indispensable and necessary" even though the accused are not present.

The trial, he said, is not meant to "move the cursor of history toward justice" but to judge men who "let their basest instincts guide them," using torture for "power by fear."

An official Chilean report says 3,065 suspected leftists were slain for political reasons before Pinochet left power in 1990. Many "vanished" — likely kidnapped and killed, and were then buried in unmarked graves — leaving relatives no word on their fate.

The other Frenchmen who disappeared were Etienne Pesle, a former priest working on a land redistribution project, Chanfreau and Jean-Yves Claudet, both members of the leftist MIR party. Claudet disappeared in 1975 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as part of Operation Condor, a joint campaign by military regimes in the southern part of the continent to brutally stamp out leftist political movements.

The trial was based on complaints filed in 1998 by the victims' families, who maintain that the Chilean justice system failed to fully investigate the four disappearances.

"The French judges understood very well that they were not only judges for the French victims but also judges for all of mankind," said attorney William Bourdon, representing families of three of the victims.

Noting the defendants' absences, he said countries should be obliged to extradite even their own citizens when charged with international crimes.

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Associated Press Television News reporter Catherine Gaschka contributed to this report.