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The New York Times, 3.1.2000

Shadows of Torment : Pinochet case reviving voices of the tortured. By Clifford Krauss

SANTIAGO - It was only when Mario Fernandez saw the headline ''Pinochet Under Arrest'' that the dam broke and he finally found it possible to talk about the beatings, the electric shocks, the cigarette burns, the terrible sense of humiliation and alienation.

''My body froze; I had an intense allergic reaction, and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry,'' Mr. Fernandez said, breaking into a tremor at the memory. He ran to his wife and wept on her shoulder, he said, and at long last took her advice to seek therapy.

''I needed to talk about the terror inside that hood they put on me, of not knowing whether they would kill me from one minute to the next,'' he said.

Mr. Fernandez is not alone in his feeling of anguished release that came with the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet in London on human rights charges in October 1998.

Psychologists report that hundreds or perhaps thousands of people like him have begun to see therapists, to organize group therapy, to share their long-hidden horrors with spouses and children.

Although no accurate count exists, at least 40,000 Chileans were tortured under the Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 until 1990, people who had been members of leftist parties, unions, student groups or merely bureaucrats in the Socialist government of President Salvador Allende.

Some were tortured for information, some to drive them into exile, some only to intimidate them.

In a systematic campaign run by the armed forces and the police at special sites across the country, they were raped, beaten, shocked, hooded, drugged, held under water and deprived of sleep; they were subjected to mock executions and months of solitary confinement.

But when this era ended in 1990, they were forgotten, overshadowed by the 4,000 Chileans who had disappeared, resented by a majority still suspicious of the political left, hounded by guilt and anger, silently enduring the mental scars of their ordeal.

Now 44 and unemployed, Mr. Fernandez - who was a factory metal worker when Mr. Allende was in power from 1970 to 1973 - still suffers from insomnia, chronic head and joint aches and unsightly red blotches he calls an allergy that run up and down his hands and arms.

He said he had seriously contemplated suicide four times, once nearly jumping off a bridge until some passers-by stopped him.

To this day, no torturer has been investigated, no torturer has been tried, no compensation has been paid. Too many military officers were involved for the new civilian government to pursue the issue without threatening the stability of a still-incomplete transition to a civilian government.

''Torture is the great dark secret in Chile's closet that is just beginning to open a crack,'' said Alfredo Joselyn-Holt Letelier, a historian at the University of Santiago de Chile.

''If we can't deal with 4,000 disappeared easily, how are we going to deal with 40,000, 70,000 or maybe even 100,000 torture victims? The fact that we don't even have good statistics is a sign of how we treat this issue.''

But since the arrest of General Pinochet on a warrant issued by a Spanish judge, reports about the torture charges against him have begun to appear regularly in the press. Newly reinvigorated human rights groups have come to victims, first seeking testimony they could use in the courts in London and Madrid, then urging them to seek help.

One group of torture victims said 500 people sought its help last year, three times as many as in 1998. A mental health program sponsored by several churches reported that monthly demand had climbed from 60 patients a month before General Pinochet's arrest to 90 and was rising.

Of 300 torture victims interviewed for testimony by the Group of the Families of the Disappeared, for example, at least 100 have sought or plan to seek therapy.

In the small agricultural center of Rancagua, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Santiago, newly organized torture victims recently held meetings with 3,000 people who were dismissed from their jobs for political reasons after the 1973 coup.

They have identified 200 who suffer various physical and psychological problems from torture and who now have said they are willing to give testimony and seek help for themselves.

Paz Rojas, chief of neurological services at the University of Chile, said a growing number of torture victims were appealing for help from private doctors and psychologists.

''Pinochet's arrest was a great catharsis that has begun to break the silence,'' the doctor said.

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