Chile Disappeared
Human rights activists rally outside the Government Palace in Santiago for relatives of those who were forcibly disappeared under the Pinochet regime. Chile's government announced it would aim to repeal an amnesty law shielding officials who committed human rights abuses in the Pinochet era. Reuters/Ivan Alvarado

Chile is aiming to strike down a decades-old law shielding those who committed human rights abuses during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Courts haven't invoked the law since 1998, but officials said it was an important move to align the country's laws with international human rights standards.

The 1978 amnesty law effectively prevented courts from prosecuting military officials involved in the torture and killings of thousands of Chileans during the first five years of Pinochet's dictatorship. About 500 people were shielded from liability for their crimes under the amnesty, according to human rights organizations.

But the repeal would be largely symbolic, as many Chilean judges had already begun circumventing the amnesty in 1998, following Pinochet's arrest in London. "It does not fundamentally change what Chilean courts have done to date, which has been to not apply the amnesty law," admitted Minister of Justice Juan Jose Gomez. As of 2013, courts have convicted around 260 people from the Pinochet era for human rights violations, 60 of whom are currently serving sentences.

Making the repeal official requires a simple majority vote from Chile's Congress, and the measure is likely to pass in both houses.

Human rights activists in Chile welcomed the move, but many expressed frustration at the long delay. "The mere existence of the decree of amnesty law offends families [of the victims]," Lorena Pizarro, president of the Association of Families of the Disappeared Detainees, told Radio University of Chile. "Never, in these 24 years [since the end of Pinochet's rule], has there been the political will to override it, to repeal it or anything like that."

President Michelle Bachelet – whose father was murdered by the Pinochet regime and was herself one of the 28,000 people tortured – pledged to strike down the law as one of her campaign promises, and the United Nations Human Rights Commission had also called on Chile in July to repeal it. Government officials formally announced the move on Thursday, the 41st anniversary of the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that ousted democratically elected, socialist president Salvador Allende and ushered in Pinochet's rule, which lasted until 1990. Pinochet himself was indicted on various human rights and corruption charges but evaded trial by claiming poor health. He died in 2006.

The government also announced that it would create a role for a new deputy minister for human rights and remove some benefits for former military officers in prison.