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Sister hopes for answers from Chile

Man vanished during Pinochet regime; woman asking Schwarzenegger for help

by Matthew Malinowski

Chronicle Foreign Service

Santiago, Chile —

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger meets President Michele Bachelet today in Sacramento, the two leaders are expected to discuss trade and energy issues. But the sister of the lone American citizen still missing from the days of Chile’s military dictatorship hopes the California politician will ask her to find out what happened to her brother.

Boris Weisfeiler is among the some 1,100 people who “disappeared” under suspicious circumstance during the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-90). With the same dogged determination of Ed Horman, the father who sought to find his American journalist son that became the topic of the 1980 movie “Missing,” Olga Weisfeiler has single-handedly kept her brother’s plight in the media spotlight.

Over the years, she has held news conferences, asked witnesses to come forward and placed newspaper ads with a picture of her brother that read: “Have you seen this man?” She has also met with dozens of officials, including U.S. ambassadors, judges, and then-Defense Minister Bachelet.

These days, she hopes a new short film about her brother’s disappearance entitled “The Colony” will spark a renewed effort to find him. Last month, the film was shown at the Santa Cruz Film Festival, and it can be seen at www.stevenjlist.com. The film’s director, Steven List, contacted Schwarzenegger’s office and he says gubernatorial aides assured him that they “will look into the case.”

“An inquiry by Schwarzenegger in such a setting will put pressure on public officials here and in Chile to discover what really happened to my brother and who is responsible for it,” said Weisfeiler, 64 who lives in Newton, Mass., and has made seven trips to South America.

Even though Chilean courts have convicted more than 100 people for human rights abuses since democracy was restored in 1990, human rights groups have criticized Chilean and U.S. officials for doing little to find out the whereabouts of Weisfeiler.

“There have been no advances of any kind in this case in the past few years,” said Amnesty International Chile Executive Director Sergio Laurenti.

Boris Weisfeiler, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Russia, was a 43-year-old mathematics professor at Pennsylvania State University when last seen on Jan. 5, 1985, while camping in scenic southern Chile. At the time, government officials claimed Weisfeiler, a hiking enthusiast, had drowned while crossing the 4-foot-deep Ñuble River where his backpack and personal belongings had been found. Even though his body was never recovered, a Chilean court declared him dead.

But U.S. government documents declassified in 2000 indicate that Weisfeiler, who was Jewish and spoke English with a heavy accent, was detained by the Chilean military, accused of being a spy, and handed over to Colonia Dignidad, or Dignity Colony, a secretive religious compound some 210 miles south of the capital, Santiago. Its founder, Paul Shaefer, had once been a member of the Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force.

Olga Weisfeiler points out that many declassified U.S. documents have yet to be translated into Spanish. She says the presiding judge in the investigation, Jorge Zepeda, has denied her attorney access to Chilean police documents and has refused help from the FBI, which launched its own investigation in 2006 and has yet to release its conclusions.

In January, however, U.S. Ambassador Paul Simons described the Weisfeiler probe as “a top priority,” and an embassy statement in April said U.S. officials “continue to work with Chilean authorities on the 1985 disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler in southern Chile.”

Judge Juan Guzman, who is well known for presiding over human rights cases involving Pinochet himself before the general died in 2006, believes U.S. officials are withholding crucial information.

“I know that the U.S. government has the name of the person who was directly involved,” he said. “But, they never wanted to reveal this name. Chilean police told me that it existed, but that they were never authorized to see it.”

In a recent interview, Zepeda said he couldn’t provide more details in an ongoing investigation.

“I cannot divulge details about those proceedings. I am a judge,” he said. “My job is not to opine, but to carry out my investigation.”

Meanwhile, Weisfeiler and Pennsylvania State University officials have sent letters to Bachelet asking her to use her office to accelerate the investigation. Bachelet said she is prohibited by law from interfering in judicial cases, and that Zepeda is actively investigating the case.

Weisfeiler says her worst fear is that U.S. and Chilean authorities will turn a deaf ear to her pleas.

“I am hoping that he (Schwarzenegger) will bring it up … because no one is talking right now,” she said.

On the Web: “The Colony,” a film about the disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler, is at www.stevenjlist.com.

In Bay Area: The president of Chile meets with the governor this morning and then visits UC Berkeley. B1

The colony

According to Amnesty International, ex-Nazi Paul Shaefer turned a sprawling 37,000-acre farm of 300 people into a prison for political prisoners. The human rights group estimates that more than 400 opponents of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship may have vanished at the farm called Dignity Colony.

Declassified U.S. documents say a Chilean military informant known only as Daniel told U.S. Embassy officials in 1987 that Boris Weisfeiler was still imprisoned there 2 1/2 years after his capture.

For the next 10 years, the documents showed that Daniel met with Chilean and U.S. officials on at least eight occasions. In the final meeting in 1997, the informant told a Chilean senator that Weisfeiler had been executed for being a “Jewish spy.”

Amnesty International’s Chile Executive Director Sergio Laurenti attributes government inaction on the Weisfeiler case to fear of Schaefer’s political connections.

“There is a lack of interest among Chilean authorities in carrying out a thorough investigation,” said Laurenti. “Schaefer himself had a ring of protection for years. Schaefer and his associates have economic power both in Germany and in Chile.”

Judge Juan Guzman, who headed the Weisfeiler investigation between 2000 and 2003, says Dignity Colony leaders also instilled fear in its members, discouraging them from cooperating with any investigation.

In a recent interview, Judge Juan Zepeda – who now heads the investigation – said that there is no connection between Weisfeiler and the German colony.

Meanwhile, the 87-year-old Schaefer is serving a 20-year-term for sexually abusing underage boys and is awaiting trial on kidnapping and murder charges in a separate case. He has remained tight-lipped about Weisfeiler and has pleaded senility to avoid further charges against him.

Matthew Malinowski

The disappeared

In 1992, a truth commission found the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-90) responsible for the death or disappearance of 3,197 people. In fact, some scholars have credited Pinochet with introducing the term “disappeared” to the lexicon of modern politics.

Until his death in 2006, Pinochet maintained that he and other members of the military command never issued orders to eliminate political opponents and that any abuses were the work of a few rogue officers.

Boris Weisfeiler, 43, was last seen on Jan. 5, 1985, while hiking in southern Chile.

The university mathematics professor remains the only American still missing from the Pinochet era.

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