Chile rejects pardons proposed by Catholic Church

Santiago, Chile - Chile's conservative president rejected a proposal by the Roman Catholic Church for sweeping pardons of elderly and sick prisoners that would have freed military officers convicted of human rights violations during the Pinochet dictatorship.

President Sebastian Pinera announced on Sunday that he will only consider case-by-case pardons on humanitarian grounds and that serious offenses related to crimes against humanity, terrorism or drug trafficking will not be considered.

Catholic Church leaders in Chile proposed pardoning prisoners who are sick, are older than 70 or have served half their sentence. But relatives of victims who were killed or vanished during Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 rule said such a sweeping amnesty would be a setback for basic justice and fairness. Church officials could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday.

"I have come to the conclusion that it would be neither prudent nor wise, under current circumstances, to approve a new general pardon," Pinera said in a televised message.

He said individual pardons will be closely studied, but "convicts will be excluded who have been sentenced for especially grave crimes, such as crimes against humanity, terrorism, drug trafficking, homicide, violent crime, rape and abuses against minors."

Mireya Garcia, vice president of the Group of Relatives of the Detainees and Disappeared, welcomed Pinera's announcement but said concerns about individual pardons remain.

"We are worried that in the end, people who were sentenced under different categories -- but who are human rights violators -- could fall under some category that makes them eligible for pardon."

According to official statistics, 3,065 opponents of Pinochet's right-wing regime were killed and 1,200 more disappeared. Some 600 military personnel have been accused of crimes against humanity but no more than 150 are serving prison sentences.

Pinera's January election ended more than two decades of rule by the center-left coalition that followed the dictatorship.

The new president has sought to distance his brand of conservative politics from the Pinochet era.