Judge who opposed Pinochet during dictatorship joins Supreme Court

By
Published On : Wed, Apr 16th, 2014

Human rights crusader Carlos Cerda, ‘perhaps, the only one who dared’ challenge the dictatorship via the judiciary, takes seat at nation’s highest court.

Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez with Judge Carlos Cerda following Tuesday’s vote to appoint the former to the Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of Ministerio de Justicia de Chile

Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez with Judge Carlos Cerda following Tuesday’s vote to appoint the former to the Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of Ministerio de Justicia de Chile

First nominated in 2006 and passed up for a conservative judge in December, Judge Carlos Cerda was approved by the Senate on Tuesday to become the newest member of the Supreme Court.

With 30 votes in favor, two abstentions and none against, all that is left is for President Michelle Bachelet to sign her approval and Cerda will officially assume his place at the country’s highest court, filling the vacancy left by Judge Juan Araya Elizalde who finished his term in January.


Last December, Sen. Jorge Pizarro of the center left Christian Democrats (DC) accused former President Sebastián Piñera and his right-leaning administration of “vetoeing” Cerda’s appointment to the highest court. However, when asked about this alleged resistance from conservative parliamentarians, the judge best known for his human rights work during the dictatorship-era downplayed claims of orchestrated discrimination.

“I know of no injustice against myself. I do not want to appear as different to the other judges of Chile ‘because I defend human rights.’ We are all equal and we are in this together. Now, there were historical situations where the degree of dedication to this work varied by various circumstances,”Judge Cerda told press. “Perhaps, I was not the only one to put myself at risk [during the dictatorship].”

Judge Cerda has made a name for himself over his almost 50 years in the judiciary by prosecuting former members of the dictatorship, even taking on human rights cases with Gen. Augusto Pinochet was still in power. In one landmark case, Cerda prosecuted more than 40 military officials in 1984 for “disappearing” numerous members of the Socialist Party (PS). In 1986 Judge Cerda was suspended for trying to prosecute former Air Force chief Gustavo Leigh. Under democracy, he worked on the Riggs Bank case, investigating the Pinochet family for wealth later revealed to have been embezzled during the dictatorship.

Many among Chile’s human rights organizations are thrilled at Cerda’s appointment.

“In addition to being someone with many merits, [Judge Cerda] is intelligent and has done outstanding work within the judiciary,” said Lorena Pizarro, president of the Group for Relatives of the Disappeared (AFDD) in an interview with local press Tuesday. “He was, perhaps, the only one who dared confront the criminal power which was the dictatorship’s repression and genocide.”

With no votes against and only two abstentions, the vast majority of opposition senators approved Cerda’s appointment. Some across the aisle said they wanted to demonstrate their willingness to vote for judges based on merit, not ideology.

“I have remained content that the reasons that many had to oppose [Cerda in the past] are not relevant today,” said Hernán Larraín, a senator for the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party. “I think there was sufficient consideration, and now I vote in favor.”

Sen. Alberto Espina of the center-right National Renewal (RN) party made similar comments, noting that Congress voted based on Chile’s dedication to an unbiased judiciary and a system of appointments that should be honored by both sides.

“That people have changed their minds is a good thing. This is the art of a good political exercise,” Espina said. “This is the correct way to make appointments. Judging by merits and rationale. If we allow other considerations to take effect, we are killing the independence of the judiciary.”

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis (kwillis@santiagotimes.cl)
Copyright 2014 The Santiago Times

About the Author

Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Charlotte specializes in foreign relations, law, and human rights. Her work can also be found on Mapuexpress, The Center for Justice and Accountability, and InterAmerican Security Watch. Charlotte is also a regular contributor to the BBC Radio5 program Up All Night as a Chile correspondent. Contact her at kwillis@santiagotimes.cl