SANTIAGO, Chile – Anger has been stoked in Chile after ten people convicted of grave human rights abuses during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) asked for ‘pardon’ through an ecumenical act at the prison in which they are being held.

The group of men, held at the military prison of Punta Peuco on the northern edge of Santiago, said their pleas for forgiveness are out of the goodness (and guilt) of their hearts.

The family members of victims, however, suspect that the actions of the prisoners are simply maneuvers for special benefits in prison with an eye on eventual parole, complete pardons and releases. They point out that the action for forgiveness was only planned after several prominent convicted human rights abusers saw their pleas for release on grounds of old age or poor health denied.

Among those that participated in the ‘pardon’ gesture include Raúl Iturriaga Neumann, the former second-in-command of the dictatorship-era secret police known as the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA). The notorious organization is thought to have ordered at least 1,500 killings from 1973-1977 before it was rebranded.

Additionally, Iturriaga Neumann was convicted of ordering the murder of Carlos Prats, the Interior Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Armed Forces under Salvador Allende, and his wife via car bomb in Buenos Aires in 1974.

Fernando Torres Silva, who was the head of Pinochet’s farcical Prosecutor’s Office as the civilian courts were shut down, will be “repenting” for overseeing hundreds of cases in which he wrongfully convicted and sentenced innocent people, many of whom were later executed.

Miguel Estay Reino and Claudio Salazar, imprisoned for their role in the “Slit Throats Case” of 1985, were also part of the group that carried out the act for forgiveness.

In 1985, Santiago Nattino, Manuel Guerrero and José Manuel Parada, three men affiliated with a teachers union and a human rights group, were kidnapped and murdered. The bodies of all three men, who were beaten, tortured and had their throats slit, were found dumped near Santiago’s international airport. Estay Reino and Salazar, then members of an elite intelligence agency of the Carabineros (federal police), were convicted for their roles in the killings.

According to witnesses cited by local media (who were not allowed inside the prison) and a report aired by Radio Cooperative, Salazar himself invoked the “infinite goodness of God” who will forgive his sins and “bury them at the bottom of the biggest ocean.”

Salazar also asked God in his “infinite wisdom and power” to “bring change to the hardened hearts that, with or without reason, hate us and do not want to give us a place in society.” In a heinous display, Salazar also asked God to “forgive the Jehova’s Witnesses because they do not know what they are doing” after the denomination came out against the prisoners’ act.

Manuel Guerrero II, for whose father’s murder Salazar was convicted, said the only opinion he has concerning the case is simple. “The murderers? They need to be dealt with in terms of justice. We need justice and we need the justice system to deal with them. Nothing more, nothing less.”

On September 11, 1973, the democratically-elected leftist Salvador Allende was ousted by the Pinochet-led Armed Forces, composed of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Carabineros (military police). As Allende refused to vacate La Moneda, the national palace, Pinochet ordered the complex to be bombed. Rather than surrendering or being killed by military forces, Allende committed suicide by shooting himself just minutes before the Chilean Air Force bombed the building.

Pinochet, who was appointed to the top position in the Armed Forces less than three weeks before he overthrew the man who gave him that position, then assumed leadership and he ruled until 1990 with an iron fist. Over 40,000 people were victims of grave human rights abuses in the South American country during its 1973-1990 dictatorship, including kidnapping, torture, rape, ‘disappearance,’ and murder, and over 1,000 remain missing. Additionally, some 200,000 Chileans were forced out or fled their country during the dictatorship, with tens of thousands still in exile.

This was part of Operation Condor, a period of systematic political repression and state-sponsored terror involving cooperating international intelligence organizations conducted by the right-wing dictatorships of South America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. This was all done with the staunch financial, logistical and political support from the United States. The program’s purpose was to “eradicate communist or Soviet influence and ideas,” and to suppress and eliminate any opposition, real or imagined, against those dictatorships.

Given the severity of these crimes and the trauma still experienced by the millions of people affected by the dictatorship, many Chileans are not as seemingly nonchalant as Guerrero about the actions of the convicted criminals.

“Down with the circus,” “Enough of the media show,” “Do not turn victimizers into victims” and “Only more lies” were some of the placards seen being held by angry protesters outside the Punta Peuco penitentiary.

Protesters noted that in the 43 years since Pinochet’s coup, no information has still been given by the figures of the dictatorship concerning the whereabouts of over 1,000 Chileans still missing. “The criminals are the only ones that will benefit from this ‘forgiveness,” a woman demonstrating told Santiago-based Radio Cooperativa.

Alicia Lira, the head of the Association of Relatives of Executed Politicians (AFEP), said that this “strategy” for pity was clear and that people should not be fooled. “First, they murdered our relatives and friends. Then, they hid the bodies and kept any information they had about the fates of our loved ones from us. Then, they deny any responsibility and even those today that put on this show still have not recognized their crimes and simply ‘apologized’ for any harm caused.”

Meanwhile, a group of women with the Collective Against Forgetting chained themselves to the pews of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago for the role played by the Catholic Church in promoting any future pardons.

“Without actually doing something to show repentance like giving us any information about the 1,000 victims still missing, this is simply a hollow and insulting show,” the collective said in a statement. “We reject this oath of silence taken by the criminals and we urge the ecumenical world in Chile to not lend itself to this circus that only insults the victims, the survivors and their families.”

Indeed, the ceremony in the prison was led by clergymen and prominent voices of the Anglican and Catholic churches.

Fernando Montes, a prominent Jesuit figure that was a “witness” to the pardon request in Punta Peuco, has said that “a society that punishes serious crimes can not lose its civility.” Montes sustains that “human rights should not be denied to people, even those that committed human rights abuses themselves.”

Detractors of any possible pardons, however, understandably disagree and point to a clear distinction in their stance: pardons for those that committed so-called “common” crimes are acceptable but the same privilege cannot be extended to those that committed crimes against humanity and violated the human rights of others.

Furthermore, in accordance with Chilean and international justice guidelines, individuals that commit these sorts of crimes are not eligible to receive certain benefits while imprisoned, nor are they eligible for an early release or pardon due to the grave nature of their crimes.

As indignation grew, the local authority of the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Conference of Chile, tried to distance itself from the controversy and from the stance of the Vicariate of Solidarity, a subgroup of the church involved in the ‘forgiveness’ process.

The deputy archbishop of Santiago, Fernando Ramos Pérez, gave a statement in which he said that the institution “does not favor impunity, especially if crimes against humanity are involved.” He added, however, that he supported the individual priests in their choices.

The small bit of justice that Chileans have received in recent years has been earned through much time, patience and determination.

The dictatorship officially ended in 1990, but democracy did not return before Pinochet and many other Armed Forces officials took measures to protect themselves in the aftermath. Those individuals greatly benefited from the Amnesty Decree, a law installed by Pinochet in 1978 that prevents any figures from facing justice due to crimes committed during the dictatorship.

Finally, some were brought to justice in 1999 due to the hard work of Chilean judge Juan Guzmán and Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón. The two men applied the law of Universal Jurisdiction, which allows those accused of human rights abuses to be tried outside their native country when the country in question does not try the accused due to amnesty laws or decrees of some sort.

Thus, Garzón secured the arrests of the suspects while Guzmán uncovered another loop: even though the Amnesty Decree still has legal value today through Article 93 of the Chilean Penal Code, which stipulates that “criminal and judicial liability is extinguished” in various cases using vague wording and statutes of limitation, Guzmán circumvented it using wording.

The way specific cases have been carried to trial have been as crimes against humanity, a charge that does not have a statute of limitations, thus circumventing the Amnesty Decree. Furthermore, the cases concerned victims whose bodies were never found, so Guzmán successfully argued that those victims’ cases are still ongoing as there was never any closure.

Pinochet died in 2006 before he could face justice due to his years of filing appeals based on senatorial immunity, leaving Chile and a variety of imagined health reasons but others, including those that participated in the “forgiveness” plea, stood trial for their crimes.

The suspects charged and punished through the mechanism of human rights violations, just 120 out of tens of thousands of suspects, are done so as individuals and not as part of a greater military and governmental scheme, and the sentences have often not reflected the severity of the crimes committed when compared to sentences given to civilians for similar crimes like murder, torture and kidnapping.

Most of the suspects have been tried at sympathetic military courts due to their background but again, not tried as part of a military scheme but as individuals, and many of the judges and prosecutors that have overseen the very small number of cases in civilian courts have been intimidated and have received death threats.

Furthermore, those that have been convicted were initially sent to the now-closed Penal Cordillera in eastern Santiago, a controversial minimum-security prison built in 2005 that housed several Pinochet-era officials and was called a ‘luxury hotel’ by opponents of its existence as it featured computers with Wi-Fi access, cable television, radio, a tennis court, swimming pool, lush gardens and an open barbecue area.

The prisoners were later moved to the aforementioned Punta Peuco, which is not as comfortable as the Penal Cordillera but is still quite lush by prison standards with recreation areas, terraces, kitchens and leaving rooms and houses only those dictatorship-era criminals, not general population convicts. Currently, there is an ongoing movement to force the government to close the prison and transfer the inmates into civilian correctional centers.

Those still searching for answers about their friends of family members feel that the existence of the Amnesty Decree is a spit in their faces, especially in a nation where many sectors of politics have reaffirmed their commitment to respecting human rights and justice.

A bill to abolish the Amnesty Decree was brought forth by incumbent President Michelle Bachelet in September of 2014, but it has been languishing in Congress without progress since then.

This issue in Congress is indicative of the general political divide in Chile: for the right, the legacy of the dictatorship is a question of “forgiving” and “looking toward the future” while the left asks for a proper clarification of the atrocities committed and amnesty laws revoked, as has been the case in neighboring Argentina.

This difference of opinion is exactly what led to the most recent plea by the prisoners and the subsequent repudiation; Hugo Dolmetsch, the President of the Supreme Court of Chile, voiced his support for giving certain benefits to prisoners convicted of human rights abuses. Jaime Campos, the Justice Minister, echoed his sentiments. Those opposed to the measure think that these sorts of actions will lead to early releases and pardons in the name of “mercy” for the people that showed absolutely no mercy to their victims.