SANTIAGO, Chile — A former Army general who headed Chile's secret police in the late 1980s was sent to prison for life Tuesday for ordering the executions of 12 leftist guerrillas during the waning years of the Pinochet military dictatorship.
Retired Gen. Hugo Salas Wenzel had argued that he had no role in the June 15-16, 1987, killings known here as the Corpus Christi Massacre. The country's Supreme Court, however, unanimously upheld a lower court conviction on the homicide charges as well as the court's sentence of life.
Salas Wenzel, who had headed the country's National Intelligence Center, became the first general to receive a life sentence in human rights prosecutions of former military leaders. The court also sentenced 14 others, including former Army Maj. Alvaro Corbalan, to shorter prison terms for their roles in the killings,
Lawyer Nelson Caucoto, representing victims' relatives, said Tuesday's decision was historic because it punished commanding officers and not just their underlings for the crimes of Army Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 regime.
According to official figures, Pinochet's government was responsible for the politically motivated killings or disappearances of 3,197 people and the imprisonment and torture of tens of thousand more.
Prosecution of the 1987 killings was held up for years in military tribunals before reaching the civilian courts, Caucoto said.
"This ends in a successful way a long struggle of 20 years," Caucoto said. "It shows that when we're serious about investigating and bringing people to justice, we can do it."
The executions, which were part of a government anti-subversion campaign known as Operation Albania, constituted one of the bloodiest episodes of the last years of Pinochet's regime and a response to a failed 1986 assassination attempt against the dictator.
Military officials long insisted that the 12 members of the guerrilla group, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, had died in an exchange of gunfire with soldiers. The regime even invited reporters to a house in the capital of Santiago where the bodies of seven of the guerrillas were arranged, along with a planted grenade, to appear as if a shootout had taken place.
Past decisions by civilian and military courts had supported that account of the killings. New testimony and evidence, however, discredited the government's account, said Patricia Silva, the older sister of Ricardo Silva, who died in the 1987 killings.
The decision is the latest in a wave of convictions of former military leaders handed down since Pinochet's death last December.
In June, another retired general, Raul Iturriaga Neumann, was sentenced to five years in prison for overseeing a clandestine jail and torture center. He escaped but was caught earlier this month.
(Hughes is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)