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Banned book's latest chapter: author on run

Chile's democratic transition left its courts unchanged and an author on the wrong side of the law.

Alejandra Matus is a celebrated author. But fame isn't what she's after.

Instead, she would just like to be able to visit her native Chile without getting arrested. It also would be nice if she could obtain a copy of the book she published this year that so offended certain people back home. Police were so swift to seize the book, the 33-year-old award-winning journalist doesn't even have a copy herself.

That's the price Matus paid for expressing her opinion about the state of justice in Chile. Her banned book, The Black Book of Chilean Justice, caused such a stir, that Matus and her American fiance were forced to flee the country within hours of its publication April 13.

A judge ordered confiscated all 3,000 copies of the 340-page book. Two editors from the leading Spanish publishing house, Planeta, were arrested on national security charges. An arrest warrant also was issued for Matus, who escaped to Miami, where she is now contemplating political asylum.

Ironically, the book has since become a bestseller in Argentina where it is already in its fourth edition, promoted as "the book that Chileans are not allowed to read." It has also been seen by 100,000 readers after Matus' brother put it on the Internet (www.geocities.com/soho/village/8539).

So, what was so scandalous about Matus' "Black Book?" What was it the judges didn't want Chile to see? Was it a tabloid hatchet-job of lies and sexual innuendo?

Hardly. The book has been well received by those who have read it. It is a serious work describing abuses of power by Chile's Supreme Court during and after the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

It is an issue many Chilean democrats are deeply concerned about. Nine years after Pinochet's rule came to an official end, the country's antiquated and despotic legal system remains unreformed.

Ironically, the laws that for years protected Pinochet and his top officials from prosecution in Chile are currently of no use to the retired general. He is under house arrest in England, awaiting extradition to stand trial in Spain for the crimes Chile's courts wouldn't hear.

Part of Matus' book is about the justice system under dictatorship and how it was manipulated to serve Pinochet's interests. She points out that judges ignored the plight of the thousands of suspected leftists who disappeared after Pinochet's right-wing military coup in 1973.

"They (the judges) could have saved many lives under the dictatorship and they didn't," Matus said.

But Matus says she didn't write the book because of Pinochet.

"It's not just Pinochet, it's the whole system," she said. "He used it, and it served his interests for a long time. Now it's serving other people's interests."

Matus' book rips the veil from Chile's much vaunted "democratic transition." After civilian rule was re-established Chile quickly won international admiration for its political stability and economic dynamism.

But critics say that in the quest for stability, the country's democratic leaders lost sight of key legal and ethical issues. Instead of moving toward a true democracy, they prefered pragmatic solutions to appease Pinochet's powerful old friends in business circles and the military.

"At present, freedom of expression is restricted in Chile to an extent possibly unmatched by any other democratic society in the Western hemisphere," concluded a report last year by Human Rights Watch, the respected U.S. group.

"We are in a democracy and nobody writes about the judiciary," said Matus, of her decision to write the book. "We decided it was time."

It took her six years of research, while working as a journalist in the Chilean capital, Santiago, and Florida.

In a detailed investigation, Matus uncovered evidence of a pattern of misconduct by several judges, including members of Chile's Supreme Court.

The response to her allegations, merely confirmed her findings. The system was not only corrupt, but it would do anything in its power to stay that way.

"By their actions they have proven my case and made my situation into an international scandal," Matus said. "I wasn't looking for that. It's their own stupidity."

A judge ordered Matus arrested after a complaint was brought by a senior member of the Supreme Court. Under a Chilean State Security Law limiting freedom of expression, it was argued Matus had offended the Supreme Court.

The law is a variant on authoritarian measures still common in Latin America, designed to protect high-ranking state officials from insult, ridicule and media allegations.

"According to the law it doesn't matter if it's true or not, as long as it is deemed to be offensive," said Matus.

A conviction for the crime carries a five-year jail sentence, as well as stiff fines. Since 1990, human rights groups say, at least 26 people, mostly journalists, have gone to jail in Chile under the law.

Matus thought of staying to fight the charges but was advised to leave the country as quickly as possible.

"I told her she had put her life on the line more than anybody," said her fiance, Jorge Junco, a 36-year-old Miami computer technician. "It was time to think of herself."

Now, from the safety of Miami, Matus is campaigning for the right to free expression. "If I am sentenced and they get away with it, against 90 percent of public opinion and protests from around the world, there's no hope for free speech in Chile," she said. "It's not only my battle, it's everybody's battle. If I win, everybody wins. If I lose, everybody loses."

She has won the backing of important jurists, politicians and human rights groups, as well as public opinion. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the human rights branch of the Organization of American States, last month asked the Chilean government to take "concrete measures" to guarantee her freedom of expression, as well as her personal safety.

So unpopular is the case against her, Chilean government officials also have criticized the judiciary. Chile's ambassador to the United States described his country's State Security law as "absurd" and "a situation that threatens fundamental rights." The Chilean Congress is also studying new laws to decriminalize criticism of public officials.

But Matus isn't taking any chances. She is careful not to travel outside the United States in case the authorities issue an international warrant through Interpol.

"They all say they are going to make the change. One thing is to say it, and another is to do it. I'm waiting."

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