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Chilean refugees demand Australia apologise following revelation of secret spy operation

Chilean Carabineros surround La Moneda Presidential Palace at 8 am, September 11th, 1973. Source: Corbis Historical

A group of around 60 Chileans, many of them refugees who arrived in Australia after the coup against Salvador Allende in 1973, have sent a letter to the federal government expressing outrage after previously classified documents revealed that ASIS agents operated in Chile during the '70s at the request of the US.

An apology from the Australian government over its involvement in Chile before the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet would help to partially close a traumatic chapter for Rodrigo Acuña and his family.

The Sydney-based independent journalist and expert in Latin American politics tells SBS Spanish that his family suffered considerably as a result of the 1973 coup, and his father was subsequently tortured.

"Of course, [a government apology would be] an acknowledgment of what happened, that the Australian state participated and was wrong to participate and destroy the democracy of another country,” he says.


Highlights:

  • Dozens of Chilean Australians want the federal government to apologise after documents revealed a secret spy office operated in Chile before the Pinochet coup.
  • The group sent a letter to the government describing Australia's presence as "outright repugnant".
  • A former refugee who was tortured after the Pinochet coup wants all classified documents to be made public.

He is among a group of around 60 Chilean Australians, many of them former refugees, who have forwarded a letter calling for an apology after details of Australia’s presence in Chile during that period recently came to light.

The publication of official documents showed that the federal government established an office of the Australian Secret Intelligence Services (ASIS) in Chile at the request of the US government, which was in operation for a three-year period before the coup that ousted democratically elected President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.

The formerly classified documents were published by the US National Security Archive on September 11, 2021, and turned over to former military intelligence officer Clinton Fernandes, who is embroiled in a legal battle with Australia's national archives to deliver the information.

Although heavily redacted, they detail organisational matters at the ASIS office in Chile.

Previously classified documents reveal the thinking behind Whitlam's decision to shut down M09 (ASIS) secret operations in Chile.
Previously classified documents reveal the thinking behind Whitlam's decision to shut down M09 (ASIS) secret operations in Chile.
Supplied.

The letter addressed to Foreign Minister Marise Payne, expresses the group’s “deepest disappointment and outright repugnance” over Australia’s involvement in Chile.

“We believe we are entitled to an unreserved apology from the government of Australia which through its secret intelligence agency interfered in a sovereign nation,” the letter reads.

Acuña explains that he was not surprised by the information contained in the documents, but rather they confirmed what the cohort already knew.

The documents further substantiated the 2013 SBS Spanish report, The Other 9/11, on Australia's dealings in Chile.

Even so, he says it has provoked anger among Chileans in Australia.

"It is understandable that many people are quite upset to learn that the Australian government participated in those events, interfered in the internal politics of a sovereign and democratic country," Acuña says.

One of the most revealing details of the recently released documents was how the decision to close the ASIS office was made by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

This decision was described as an “agonising” one for Whitlam, who seemingly weighed up Australian and US interests against those of public opinion if word of Canberra’s presence in Chile were to become public.

According to this memo, Whitlam reportedly said he did not disapprove of "what the Americans were doing in Chile".
According to this memo, Whitlam reportedly said he did not disapprove of "what the Americans were doing in Chile".
Supplied.

The letter, which will be sent to politicians and parliamentarians, also "requests that the government of Australia declassifies all necessary files regarding ASIS activities in Chile in the 1970s”.

Acuña insists on the need to know more details since, according to him, after the closure of the ASIS office "an agent stayed until the beginning of 1974, so it is necessary to know what that agent was involved in”.

This information has not been verified.

Historian Gustavo Mártin is also among the signatories of the letter.

He is considered the first Chilean refugee to arrive in Australia in 1974.

He was detained and tortured at the beginning of the Chilean dictatorship and doubts that the Australian government will respond to his requests to declassify the documents.

“I doubt the Australian government will. I think that first, they would have to consult the CIA in the United States whether or not to allow them to reveal the documents they have,” he says.

According to the researcher, an agreement exists between ASIS and the CIA for the safeguarding of sensitive information and he refers to a meeting he held in the early 1990s with the then Australian immigration minister Gerry Hand, in which “we asked him to expel from Australia a series of intelligence agents who had participated in the operations of torture and death of Chileans in the coup d'état”.

According to Mártin's account, the minister told him they "did not have the power to do so because this is an agreement between the intelligence departments of Australia and the United States”.

SBS Spanish has contacted the Department of Immigration for a response to these claims.

Mártin believes it’s important to receive an apology from the Australian government.

I think we deserve it because we have all suffered the consequences of exile.

"It is true that we arrived in a beautiful country that we all love very much and that is part of our life.

"I hope that at least they have the decency and moral quality to apologise to us."

Read this story in Spanish here.