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September 7, 2004

Chilean Dictatorship's Victims Go After Pinochet's Lawyer


by Alicia Fraerman

MADRID - Representatives of more than 5,000 survivors of the Chilean dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the families of victims brought a lawsuit Monday against the former dictator's executor, Oscar Aitken, in the Spanish capital.

The legal action was filed in the court of Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, and urges him to investigate the elderly former dictator's lawyer on charges of money laundering and fraudulent bankruptcy.

The lawsuit, brought by Spanish lawyers Joan Garcés and Manuel Murillo on behalf of survivors of Chile's 1973-1990 de facto military regime and the relatives of victims, will be incorporated in the legal proceedings opened against Pinochet by Garzón in February 1996 in Spain.

In October 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London, where he had undergone surgery for a slipped disc, on a warrant issued by Garzón, who was seeking his extradition to try him for crimes against humanity, like the forced disappearance of thousands of people, including a number of Spanish citizens, under his regime.

Although Pinochet spent 16 months under house arrest in London, he was eventually released by the British government on humanitarian grounds.

Garcés, who served as personal adviser to Chilean President Salvador Allende – overthrown by Pinochet on Sept. 11, 1973 – told IPS he was confident that the case would prosper and that it would help compensate, "at least in part, in monetary terms," the torture survivors and families of victims.

In October 1998, Garzón issued an order to freeze Pinochet's assets, anywhere in the world, as a guarantee that victims would receive compensation if the retired army chief were ever convicted in court.

Today, Garcés and Murillo are also demanding a freeze on the assets of Pinochet's executor, Aitken.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs point to Aitken's "acknowledged participation in the creation of Abanda Limited in 1999 on Tortola Island in the British Virgin Islands, to evade the [1998] freeze on Pinochet's assets."

They are also seeking a freeze on the assets of Joseph L. Allbritton, Robert L. Allbritton, Steven Pfeiffer and Carol Thompson – senior executives of the Washington-based Riggs Bank.

The expansion of the lawsuit presented Monday in Madrid is based on the report "Money Laundering and Foreign Corruption: Enforcement and Effectiveness of the PATRIOT Act, a Case Study Involving Riggs Bank" [.pdf].

The report, prepared by the minority staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs' Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was released on July 15.

The investigation "revealed transactions aimed at evading the freeze on Augusto Pinochet's assets ordered by the Spanish court in any country where they are located, whether under his name or the names of third parties," said Garcés.

The brief lodged by Garcés and Murillo states that the alleged crimes involving Pinochet's assets, including money laundering, were committed in Spain, Britain, the United States, the Bahamas and Chile.

They also list bank accounts opened in affiliates of Riggs Banks in several cities around the world, as well as transfers of funds between those accounts, that took place on various occasions.

One of the accounts, opened in London on an unspecified date, became personal account number 74-041-013 in April 1997 and was closed in May 2000, containing a total of $1.1 million.

Those funds were transferred to Riggs Bank in the United States under the name of an offshore shell corporation belonging to Pinochet, Althorp Investment Co., Ltd.

The U.S. Senate report states that "Riggs Bank assisted Augusto Pinochet . . . to evade legal proceedings related to his Riggs bank accounts and resisted OCC [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] oversight of these accounts, despite red flags involving the source of Mr. Pinochet's wealth, pending legal proceedings to freeze his assets, and public allegations of serious wrongdoing by this client."

Garcés pointed out that the "legal proceedings" cited by the report referred to the freeze on Pinochet's assets ordered by Garzón, of which the U.S. courts were immediately informed, and which remains in force.

The U.S. Senate investigation also mentions a visit to Chile, paid for by Riggs Bank, by the private banker who handled relations with Pinochet. He personally traveled to Chile to hand over cashier checks worth $50,000 each – for a total of $400,000 – to the retired general.

These checks, and others that were sent by overnight delivery to Chile, were made payable to Maria Hiriart (the former dictator's wife) and/or Augusto P. Ugarte (Ugarte is Pinochet's second last name).

The checks, which totaled $1.9 million, were cashed one by one, over the space of a few months.

The report also states, "When asked why Riggs didn't simply wire transfer the funds to a Pinochet account in Chile, which would have been faster, less expensive, and more secure than physically transporting checks to Chile, Riggs personnel were unable to provide a satisfactory explanation."

Sources in Garzón's courtroom said admission of the expansion of the lawsuit is pending acceptance by the prosecutor, which Garcés said was virtually a sure thing.

The lawyer added that the money found in Pinochet's accounts in Riggs Bank, estimated by the Senate report at between four and eight million dollars, could be "just the tip of the iceberg."

(Inter Press Service)


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Alicia Fraerman writes for IPS.

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