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LATIN AMERICA | 05-03-2021 12:22

Slow justice for women abused by Chile's dictatorship

More than 40,000 people were tortured and another 3,200 were murdered or disappeared in the 17 years of Augusto Pinochet's regime (1973-1990), which savaged women, making them victims of aberrant methods of torture specially focused on sexual violence.

It has been almost 50 years but Beatriz Bataszew vividly remembers the abuse she suffered under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime. 

Like thousands of other opponents of the dictatorship, she was detained and tortured – a fate that for women often went hand-in-hand with rape or other forms of sexual torment.

Bataszew, now a 66-year-old psychologist, was arrested in September 1974 for being a member of Chile's Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR).

She survived seven days of horror in a detention centre that specialised in sexual torture seeking to break the morale of captured female activists and send a message to others.

Detainees were blindfolded on arrival and left that way throughout their stay in overcrowded cells. Music blared non-stop to drown out the sounds of torture –  earning the centre the wry nickname "The Disco."

"Here resounded our screams, our cries," Bataszew told AFP on a recent visit to the place of her nightmares.

The building today is a private residence despite being earmarked as a memorial site. On the street outside, an improvised metal monument displays photographs of women who never came back from "The Disco."

'More viciousness'

"Women were a tough nut to crack and... punished with much more viciousness than men," said Bataszew.

More than 40,000 people were tortured and some 3,200 were killed or made to disappear in the 17 years of Pinochet's post-coup rule from 1973 to 1990.

Torture was different for women than for men. Some of the methods included raping them in front of their partners, or inserting live rats into their vaginas.

Some 35,000 victims of the military junta gave evidence to the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture in 2005, of which nearly 13 percent (3,399) were women – almost all of them subjected to sexual violence.

Victims testified of electric shocks to their genitals, or being raped with dogs trained to perform this vile act.

Seventeen years after the commission – and five decades since the horrors – a court ruling last November means these deeds can now finally be punished for what they are: sexual torture.

The court created a new crime designation for what occurred at places such as "The Disco" – creating a category separate from what had previously been prosecuted under the umbrella of "aggravated kidnapping."

As part of the same ruling, the court convicted – for the first time – three agents of the Pinochet military junta for sexual torture.

"It is a big step because it is the first time that gender-based violence was recognised" as a separate crime, Patricia Artes, spokeswoman for the Memories of Feminist Rebellion grouping told AFP.

'Evil and cruelty'

Cristina Godoy-Navarrete, now 68 years old and a retired immunologist, was one of the first captives at "The Disco," which was also known as "Venda Sexy" for the nature of the abuse meted out there.

"When I arrived there were only two other women. They took you to an underground area where they had equipment to apply electricity... and where they had the trained dog [for the rapes]," she told AFP from London, where she went into exile after being freed a year after her arrest in 1974.

She hopes last year's ruling will pave the way for violence against her and other women to be classified as crimes against humanity.

Some of the worst punishments involved women's loved ones. 

The report produced by Chile's torture commission recorded evidence of men being forced to rape their daughters or sisters.

"They held me to be tortured in front of him, as his wife," recounted Erika Hennings, wife of Alfonso Chanfreau – a philosophy student and an MIR leader still listed as "disappeared."

The retired teacher, 69, said she was detained for 17 days at the torture centre known as "Londres 38" after its street address, crammed into a room with 80 other people without beds and blindfolded for 24 hours.

"Londres 38 was a center of repression, torture... where I first encountered evil and cruelty," she recounted.

She said she was "used as a woman" to put pressure on Chanfreau.

'I get angry'

At Villa Grimaldi, yet another torture chamber, Shaira Sepulveda was held for 10 days.

"They got a special kick out of trying to denigrate, to destroy women," the 72-year-old told AFP.

Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile and now UN Commissioner for Human Rights, was also held at Villa Grimaldi in the 1970s with her mother Ángela Jeria.

"I get angry, I get angry, I get angry to see how they took advantage to destroy and kill our companions," Sepulveda said as she recently toured a rose garden created at the center in memory of female victims of the junta.

"They didn’t get what they wanted and I hope that someday we can have justice because they (the women) deserve it."

by Alberto Peña, AFP

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