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Former Nazi Sect Leader Captured in Argentina

Gustavo González

Former German Nazi army corporal Paul Schaefer, who has been on the run from the Chilean justice system for seven years, was captured Thursday in Argentina.

SANTIAGO, Mar 10 (IPS) -
The leader of Colonia Dignidad, a sect and agricultural commune founded in Chile by German immigrants, had earlier been tried in absentia and convicted of sexually abusing at least 26 children.

”This is a demonstration that justice might take a while, but it arrives,” said human rights attorney Hugo Gutiérrez.

The 83-year-old Schaefer was arrested in a joint operation involving 30 Chilean and Argentine police in a posh suburb known as Las Acacias, 40 km from Buenos Aires.

Schaefer, who escaped a major police raid and went into hiding on May 20, 1997, was one of Chile's most wanted fugitives.

He founded Colonia Dignidad, a 170,000-hectare farming commune, in 1961 east of the town of Parral, around 340 km south of Santiago.

According to reports by local and international human rights groups as well as German immigrants who escaped the commune, leftist activists were detained, tortured and killed in Colonia Dignidad after the Sep. 11, 1973 coup d'etat in which former dictator General Augusto Pinochet seized power.

The escaped members said Schaefer maintained strict and often cruel discipline among the members of the sect, while drawing in youngsters from local farms and rural towns, many of whom were sexually abused.

”With Paul Schaefer's arrest, we can obtain more compelling evidence, from his testimony, that Colonia Dignidad and DINA had ties,” Gutiérrez told the Cooperativa radio station in Santiago.

DINA (the National Intelligence Directorate), which was dissolved in 1978, was the secret police body in the early years of the 1973-1990 Pinochet dictatorship.

At Colonia Dignidad, which has an airfield, Schaefer lent DINA support in the repression of opponents of the dictatorship.

Schaefer's capture was made possible by an international arrest warrant issued by Santiago Judge Joaquín Billard, who is investigating the 1974 forced disappearance of Alvaro Vallejos, a member of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), who was being held at Colonia Dignidad.

The elderly former Nazi soldier was seen in June 1997 in a hotel in Bariloche, a ski resort in southern Argentina, where he once again evaded police.

But the police recently received new information on his whereabouts from reporters with Contacto, a Channel 13 TV programme in Santiago.

This information, along with details provided by employees in the Las Tortuguitas condominium complex, where Schaefer was hiding with his four German bodyguards, led to his arrest.

Gutiérrez said Judge Billard's efforts in the case showed how effective it is to assign prosecuting judges specifically and exclusively to the cases involving human rights violations committed during Chile's de facto regime.

Last November, Judge Hernán González, who has handled the case of child abuse against 26 minors in Colonia Dignidad, convicted and sentenced 20 other leaders of the sect and temporarily closed the case against Schaefer until his whereabouts could be established.

Now that he has been arrested, the judge could reopen the case.

The abused children were not only sons and daughters of the German immigrants living in the commune, but also the children of local farming families who attended the Colonia Dignidad agricultural school.

Paul Schaefer was born Dec. 4, 1921 in Sieburg, Germany, and joined the Nazi youth movement at a young age. He served as a medic in the German army during WWII, where he reached the rank of corporal. In 1959 he created the Private Social Mission, supposedly a charitable organisation.

He was accused of sexually abusing children in 1959 and fled Germany with his followers. He showed up in Chile in 1961, where the government at the time, led by conservative President Jorge Alessandri, granted him permission to create the Dignidad Beneficent Society on a farm outside of Parral.

Heinz Kuhn, a young member of the colony who fled in 1968, told of Nazi rituals and the holding of people against their will. But his reports were ignored by Chilean authorities, although they were later recorded by the German courts, which in 1996 also brought charges against Schaefer for child sex abuse.

Kuhn, who returned to Chile to live in the town of Los Angeles, 540 km south of Santiago, celebrated Schaefer's capture Thursday. ”I feel like a soldier, when the war is won,” he told the press.

In the 1980s, the Pinochet regime as well as the courts also turned a deaf ear to further denunciations by escaped members of the cult, which strengthened suspicion that Colonia Dignidad was collaborating with the dictatorship.

After democracy was restored in March 1990, the cult and Schaefer continued to enjoy some sort of protection from the courts as well as right-wing political leaders, who dismissed the reports of abuses and played up the charitable work of Colonia Dignidad.

A number of lawsuits were filed against Colonia Dignidad, on a number of different charges ranging from customs and tax fraud to kidnapping and rape of minors. But most of the charges were tossed out on the grounds of lack of evidence.

Among the commune's main defenders in those years was the current president of the Senate, Hernán Larraín of the Independent Democratic Union, the strongest right-wing opposition party today.

Not until 1997, after profound changes in the composition of the courts, did the justice system admit the charges against Schaefer.

He was able, nevertheless, to escape numerous police raids thanks to ”a powerful network of protection,” according to Senator Jaime Naranjo of the co-governing Socialist Party.

The ring is allegedly comprised of judges, parliamentarians of right-wing opposition parties, former officials of Pinochet's de facto regime, former military commanders, and members of the business community who reportedly benefited from Schaefer's services. (END/2005)