José Zalaquett, Leader in Chile’s Search for Truth, Dies at 77
José Zalaquett, a Chilean lawyer who investigated human rights abuses during Augusto Pinochet’s regime — spending time in prison and in exile as a result — and then helped bring to light similar abuses elsewhere in the Americas as well as in Africa and the Middle East, died on Feb. 15 in Santiago, Chile’s capital. He was 77.
His daughter Valeria Zalaquett said the cause was Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Zalaquett was admired not only for his efforts in Chile in the 1970s, when standing up to Pinochet was an act of courage, but also for his work years later in helping that country come to grips with its past after its return to democracy in 1981. He was a key figure on the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writing much of its 1991 report, which detailed abuses under the dictatorship and suggested how to guard against a recurrence.
That became an area of expertise for him, not just in relation to Chile but to any country — Argentina, South Africa, Panama — that faced the challenge of restoring order and justice after a period of war or oppression.
Cristián Correa, a senior staff member at the International Center for Transitional Justice, a human rights group on whose advisory board Mr. Zalaquett served, was one of many to post tributes to him after his death. He “helped pioneer the field of transitional justice and inspired countless human rights defenders around the globe,” Mr. Correa wrote.
General Pinochet seized power in September 1973 in a bloody military coup that deposed President Salvador Allende, replacing his Marxist government with a right-wing dictatorship. Thousands were detained, arrested or killed. Mr. Zalaquett was asked to lead what became known as the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, an initiative of the Roman Catholic Church and other religious institutions that defended detainees and helped families search for relatives who had disappeared.
“We soon had a staff of more than 70 people and began to establish legal strategies, mainly habeas corpus writs,” Mr. Zalaquett said in an interview posted on the website of the organization Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Although we lost virtually every case” — the judiciary being unwilling to challenge the military junta — “we knew that we had to continue. The process itself was important.”
In 1975 Mr. Zalaquett was jailed and released. Then, in April 1976, he was jailed again, though not for long.
“I was taken directly from prison to the airport,” he said, “where the guards even buckled my seatbelt and sent me into exile.”
He was sent to France and later settled in the United States. He became a leading figure in Amnesty International and continued to try to bring attention to the abuses in Chile, calling on the American government to exert pressure.
“If the United States is sincere in its professed dedication to human rights,” he wrote in an essay in The New York Times in 1976, “it must reconsider its foreign aid policy toward Chile.”
He was permitted to return to Chile in 1986, and in 1990, after Pinochet relinquished the presidency, his successor, Patricio Aylwin, named Mr. Zalaquett to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He later advised similar groups, including South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which dealt with the end of apartheid.
Rebuilding a just political system, he knew, was a delicate process.
“Every step of this transitional process takes on symbolic value and has lasting effects,” he said. “Truth is important. Justice is important. Forgiveness is, too.”
But he did not favor blanket amnesty for those who had committed abuses, as some of Pinochet’s supporters urged.
“The individual must atone for sins that have been committed and make reparations,” he said. “In this manner, it is as if the sinner is putting back the brick he took from the moral building.”
A blanket amnesty without this acknowledgment “only serves to validate human rights abuses,” he said.
“There is no truth, no repentance — just cynicism.”
José Fernando Zalaquett Daher was born on March 10, 1942, in Antofagasta, Chile, to Michel Zalaquett, a shop owner, and Ernestina Daher. He earned a law degree in 1967 at the University of Chile in Santiago.
After Allende was elected in 1970, Mr. Zalaquett worked for two years in his administration. Those years, he later admitted, were not without problems.
“We were idealistic and well meaning, but we were young and irresponsible, and everybody acknowledges that now,” he told The Times in 2003. “To attempt a social revolution went against the grain of this country.”
By 1973, when the coup took place, he had left the government and was a university administrator.
“Those who knew that I was a lawyer approached me and asked for my help in finding their imprisoned or disappeared relatives,” he said. “Learning that the churches were organizing to provide some relief, I joined them.”
He particularly ran afoul of Pinochet in March 1976, when Mr. Zalaquett met with three members of the United States House of Representatives who had traveled to Chile to investigate reports of human rights abuses. He was exiled a month later.
During his exile he served as chairman of the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International. He later became the organization’s deputy secretary general.
From 2000 to 2005, he was a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He also taught at several institutions, including the University of Chile.
Mr. Zalaquett’s marriage to María Pía Fuentealba, in 1966, ended in divorce. In 2003 he married Dianora Contramaestre. In addition to his wife and his daughter Valeria, from his first marriage, he is survived by another daughter from that marriage, Daniela Zalaquett, and four grandchildren.
Mr. Zalaquett’s thinking on how to pursue reconciliation and justice after a period of national trauma has influenced countless people who have worked in that field.
“He often described transitional justice as an icebreaker,” Mr. Correa wrote in his tribute, “which works best when it strikes the ice at its weakest point and cracks it; the crack can then be widened further until it opens up a clear path to sustainable peace and justice.”
But the process, Mr. Zalaquett said in a talk at Stanford University in 2010, is a complex one that has yet to be perfected.
“It’s a human endeavor, and human endeavors fail more than they succeed,” he said. “Which is all the more reason to try over and over again.”
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