SANTIAGO, Chile — A Chilean judge sentenced the country's former intelligence chief, retired Gen. Manuel Contreras, to two life prison terms Monday for masterminding a double assassination that was one of the most notorious covert operations conducted by this country's military government.
The historic court decision, which can be appealed, holds Contreras responsible for the murders of Gen. Carlos Prats, the former army chief, and his wife in a 1974 bombing attack in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires.
The sentence is the biggest to be handed out so far in this country's ongoing human rights prosecutions and should help resolve what was long one of the most painful episodes of dictator Augusto Pinochet's rule.
Justice Minister Carlos Maldonado applauded the verdict, calling the assassinations "a terrorist attack in another country" and pledging the government's commitment to bringing justice to the regime's victims.
U.S. journalist John Dinges, who's written two books about the Pinochet regime's abuses, said Monday's decision was a landmark in the human rights prosecutions.
"This is as monumental a human rights action as has been taken in all this long history of human rights adjudication in Chile," Dinges said. "You have members of the Chilean military now convicted of assassinating a former chief. That's enormous. That takes it way beyond human rights and takes it to an attack on the state."
The murders of Prats and Sofia Cuthbert consolidated the rise of Pinochet's authoritarian regime, which was responsible for the politically motivated deaths and disappearances of some 3,000 people during its 17 years in power.
Pinochet's replacement of Prats as army chief set the stage for the 1973 coup that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende. According to court testimony, the Pinochet regime then sent U.S. citizen Michael Townley to plant a bomb under Prats' car in Argentina.
On Chilean orders, Townley went on to assassinate former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington, also by planting a car bomb. That 1976 attack, in a neighborhood known as Embassy Row, was the first case of foreign-sponsored terrorism on U.S. soil.
Appellate Judge Alejandro Solis, who was assigned to investigate the Prats case, sentenced eight others to prison Monday for their roles in the assassination, but not Townley, who couldn't be prosecuted because he lives in the United States.
Townley, who testified to Argentine and Chilean courts about the Prats assassination and has been a U.S. government-protected witness, was released after he served half of a 10-year prison sentence in the United States following his guilty plea in the Letelier case.
The others sentenced Monday included Townley's ex-wife, Mariana Callejas, who joined her then-husband on the bombing mission, and other Chilean army officials such as retired Gen. Raul Iturriaga and retired Col. Pedro Espinoza.
Chilean courts already have convicted Contreras for other dictatorship-era crimes, and the retired general has been confined to a military prison on the outskirts of Santiago, the capital. His attorney, Fidel Reyes, declined to comment Monday.
For Contreras, once one of the most feared men in Chile, Monday's sentencing finishes his fall from power.
Contreras, who's now 79, was the main author of Operation Condor, an informal pact among the continent's military governments to share intelligence, help one another track down and trade dissidents and conduct assassinations such as Letelier's.
In Argentina, Prats had drawn Pinochet's ire by speaking out against the Chilean regime's abuses and calling for a return to democracy, and Contreras quickly moved to eliminate him.
Prats' daughters said Monday that the judge's decision was a crucial step toward documenting the Pinochet regime's crimes, but they added that they'd hoped to see Pinochet himself convicted. The former dictator died in December 2006 of complications from a heart attack without having been tried. Contreras has testified that he acted under Pinochet's orders in several human rights cases.
"Unfortunately, it didn't happen," Cecilia Prats said of a Pinochet conviction. "But the country knows clearly that he was part of this group of people that attacked our parents."
(Hughes is a McClatchy special correspondent. Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)