University of Calgary

Famous Chilean judge tells stories of terror, transformation and justice

UToday HomeMarch 21, 2013


The soft-spoken Juan Guzmán spoke to the Faculty of Law as part of the Total Visiting Speakers Program. Photo by James Michael Paul Photography. Video by Sabbohi Asif.

Juan Guzmán stands thoughtful and soft spoken. Yet his words are disturbing. He speaks of a dark era that eviscerated his country and brought torture or death to thousands of people. The Calgarians in the packed Murray Fraser Hall are captivated by the incongruity: this unassuming man found himself at the centre of the aftermath of a violent national nightmare.

Guzmán was the Chilean judge who was first to indict former dictator Augusto Pinochet, infamous for the bloody legacy of his military dictatorship that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. Guzmán indicted the former general for over 200 human rights cases, bringing the force of law down on Pinochet and more than 400 of his advisors, generals and agents.

Although many others were tried and convicted, Guzmán says that biases of some of those in the judiciary prolonged the suffering and helped prevent him from bringing Pinochet to trial before the dictator died in 2006. Despite this, Guzmán and many Chileans, including some who attended the lecture, feel that justice was served.

“I think justice was performed, in a certain sense,” Guzmán said. “The crimes attributed to (Pinochet) and his agents were legally established. The (victims) were not criminals and traitors as described by the junta. I think the trials are a very important landmark in international law.”

“We couldn’t believe a dictatorship could happen,” Chilean Ricardo Recabarren told the audience. Recabarren lost five family members during the Pinochet regime. Photo by James Michael Paul Photography “We couldn’t believe a dictatorship could happen,” Chilean Ricardo Recabarren told the audience. Recabarren lost five family members during the Pinochet regime. Photo by James Michael Paul Photography Guzmán’s pursuit of the Pinochet regime had a surprising impact on his own life. His investigation forced him to confront his own past as a member of a family of staunch Pinochet supporters who, like many, could not believe the claims being made against the general.

To this day, Chileans remain deeply divided over Pinochet’s legacy. But Guzmán said that while another coup in Chile is not impossible, his country is making great strides to create a new constitution and a stronger, more autonomous judiciary.

Ricardo Recabarren agrees. The native Chilean and now Canadian attended Guzmán’s talk and told the audience that his father, two brothers and a pregnant sister-in-law were secretly abducted during the Pinochet regime. “We never saw (it) coming. We couldn’t believe a dictatorship could happen. It can happen anywhere,” he said.

As Guzmán’s work has influenced human rights law around the world, it also resonates here in Calgary. Madam Justice Constance Hunt of the Alberta Court of Appeal, a friend of Guzmán and a former dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary, told the audience that she is inspired by his determination in the face of institutional obstacles and threats to his own life.

“His story has strengthened my personal commitment to make the hard choices that a judge has to make every day,” Hunt said.

Guzmán appeared on March 14 as part of the Faculty of Law’s Total Visiting Speakers Program.

 

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