IACHR Takes to Inter-American Court of Human Rights Case Concerning Chile's Application of "Half Statute of Limitations" to Crimes Against Humanity

January 10, 2022

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed on November 19, 2021, an application before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Arturo Benito Vega González and others, with regard to Chile. The case concerns the application of a "half statute of limitations" or a "gradual statute of limitations" in 14 criminal law cases regarding crimes against humanity perpetrated against 48 individuals in the context of Chile's civilian–military dictatorship.

Chile's Supreme Court of Justice, acting as a criminal court of appeals in these cases, reduced the penalties that had been imposed on the individuals who had been found guilty of these crimes, applying for the first time as mitigating circumstances the "half statute of limitations" or "gradual statute of limitations" held in Article 103 of the country's Penal Code. This disposition applies when the defendant comes forward or is found after half the time prescribed in the statute of limitations for criminal proceedings has already passed. In the crimes of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated murder, this stood at five years and seven and a half years.

In its Merits Report, the Commission noted that the State had identified the individuals responsible for the serious human rights violations inflicted on victims and had found that these were crimes against humanity. The IACHR further assessed whether Chile had complied with its obligation to adequately and proportionately punish the individuals responsible for these events, based on the fact that these were crimes against humanity.

The IACHR noted that the fact that a "half statute of limitations" had been applied had led to a considerable reduction in the prison sentences imposed on convicts. For none of them did deprivation of liberty last longer than the minimum legally established sentence mentioned in the Penal Code for aggravated murder and aggravated kidnapping. Based on this sentence reduction, the Supreme Court of Justice further granted benefits including conditional sentence reductions and releases on probation, so many of the individuals responsible for these crimes were never incarcerated.

The Commission also noted that the State had failed to justify the compatibility of sentence reductions with the American Convention and with inter-American standards concerning sentence proportionality. The Commission noted that the State had acknowledged the violation of these guarantees by stating that "The sentences that were issued by the Supreme Court at the time did not reflect the rationality and proportionality standards that State conduct must be based on when exercising punitive powers for crimes against humanity."

According to the Supreme Court's decisions, these reductions rest on the idea that, as more and more time goes by without a punishment, the State's punishment should be reduced. The Commission considered that gradually reducing criminal law sanctions for crimes against humanity based only on the passage of time and on legal certainty criteria fails to comply with the obligation to adequately punish the individuals responsible for serious human rights violations. For the IACHR, it is problematic that the State's own failure to investigate these crimes and identify the people responsible for them should trigger the use of such a mechanism.

The IACHR therefore concluded that the State of Chile is liable for violating the rights to judicial guarantees and to judicial protection held in the American Convention (Articles 1.1 and 2) and in the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons (Articles I.b and III) concerning victims in this case and their families.

IACHR recommendations to the State include providing comprehensive reparations—both material and immaterial—for victims; declaring null and void all decisions made by the Supreme Court of Justice in this case; and ensuring that the provisos for a half statute of limitations or gradual prescription of sentences held in Article 103 of the Penal Code will not be applied to serious human rights violations.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 007/22

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