Tortured singer's widow seeks justice

By Philip Sherwell in New York

According to official estimates, more than 3000 individuals were killed by state agents or "disappeared" under the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1990.
According to official estimates, more than 3000 individuals were killed by state agents or "disappeared" under the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1990.

Joan Jara recalls all too vividly the terrible state of her husband's corpse when she collected it from the morgue in Santiago - the bullet holes to his head and body, the mangled fingers that had once played the guitar so beautifully.

It was 40 years ago that she last saw Victor Jara alive, when the Chilean folk singer and theatre director left home to go to work as a university professor.

It was hours after General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende, the country's elected socialist president, in a US-backed coup. Mrs Jara, a dancer born 86 years ago in north London, has pursued her husband's persecutors for the past four decades.

She hopes she will finally be able to describe those horrors in testimony to convict a former Chilean army officer, now an American citizen living in Florida, who is accused of beating and killing Mr Jara.

Mrs Jara and her two daughters have sued Pedro Barrientos in a US state court, under federal laws that allow legal action against alleged human rights violators living in America.

Mrs Jara's battle to hold accountable her husband's alleged killer and torturer is emblematic of the country's struggles with the dark legacy of the dictatorship.

"It has been tough to keep fighting for 40 years but Victor's case is so important not just for us, but for all the families that are still suffering because of the brutality and the terrible crimes committed in those years," she said.

Her hope is that the US lawsuit, filed last week by the Centre for Justice and Accountability, will bolster a case to extradite Mr Barrientos to Chile, where last year he was charged in his absence with Mr Jara's murder.

Tracked down in Florida by a Chilean television crew, the former lieutenant denied involvement in the killings. But soldiers from his regiment have told a court that they witnessed Mr Barrientos torture Mr Jara.

"Lieutenant Barrientos decided to play Russian roulette, so he took out his gun, approached Victor Jara, who was standing with his hands handcuffed behind his back, spun the cylinder, put it against the back of his neck and fired," said soldier Jose Paredes.

Mrs Jara described how she last heard from him in a telephone call from the university on the afternoon of September 11, 1973.

"Victor called me to say that he couldn't get home because of the curfew, that he loved me and urged me to stay home and take care of the girls.

"What he didn't tell me was that he couldn't leave because the university was surrounded by tanks and under siege."

Mrs Jara learned from a smuggled message that her husband was among 800 students and professors who were taken from the Technical University the next day to the Chile Stadium, a concert arena.

Given his prominence as a supporter of the Allende government, she feared the worst.

Then came the news she had dreaded, when a young man told her she needed to come to the morgue. "It was a terrible sight. There was a passage lined with bodies and at the end there was Victor.

"I saw everything that they had done to him, the bullet wounds, the injuries to his fingers and body."

According to official estimates, more than 3000 individuals were killed by state agents or "disappeared" under the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1990.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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