Ley Sophia: The return of the death penalty in Chile?

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On 25 January 2018, a two-year-old girl named Sophia died in a hospital in the southern Chilean city of Puerto Montt – days after being beaten, burnt and sexually abused by her father.

The doctor who received her in the hospital had attempted to resuscitate her after she went into cardiac arrest, later saying that “the strongest horror movie is less overwhelming than what we saw that day”.

According to an investigation by local newspaper El Llanquihue shortly after Sophia’s death, she had been taken to emergency health services 14 times during her short life as a result of domestic violence, yet local authorities never once raised the alarm.

Sophia’s father is now under arrest awaiting charge; while the nation at large is reeling from another case of domestic violence – this time more shocking than ever before.

This mournful introspection has taken an unprecedented turn however, as the repulsive nature of the abuse that the girl suffered has prompted calls for offenders to pay for crimes of this nature with their lives.

Rule of law

Historically, the Chilean judicial system has often been ineffective at punishing perpetrators of sexual and child abuse. Theoretically, national law stipulates that someone accused of raping a person younger than 14 years of age should face between 5 and 20 years of prison.

The use of violence against a minor could result in between 1 day and 10 years in prison – or even just a fine – depending on the gravity of the injuries sustained.

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The Ministry for Justice and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. Photo credit: John Bartlett/Jericho.

Even after a thorough reform of criminal law was approved in 2005, only 8 to 10% of crimes that were sent to trial in 2015 resulted in a sentence; and there is nothing to suggest that those numbers have improved since.

Understandably, this has brought enormous frustration to the families of victims and to Chilean society. A feeling of helplessness and insecurity, born from the knowledge that many of the perpetrators walk free and are unlikely ever to be punished for their crimes, has crept into the national psyche, accompanied by a conclusive feeling that enough is enough.

“Ley Sophia”

Sophia’s death was, for many, the final straw. A nationwide protest was organised via social media, and almost one thousand people gathered in front of La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace in Santiago, on 2 February.

More joined demonstrations in other cities up and down the country to call upon the government to address the issue of domestic violence – and in particular extreme cases such as Sophia’s – once and for all, by passing a new law, dubbed “Ley Sophia” (“Sophia’s Law”).

Protestors have demanded that punishments such as chemical castration – and even the death penalty – be made legal for those guilty of abusing minors; and these calls have not gone unnoticed by Chile’s political class.

Some senators and deputies have come out in favour of the reforms, stating that even if reinstating the death penalty would not be easy, “it is something that should be analysed and decided upon jointly by Chilean society”.

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A sign outside La Moneda in Santiago, reading: “Maximum punishment for rapists and murderers = happy and safe children.” Photo credit: John Bartlett/Jericho.

Some right-wing politicians from the country’s Unión Demócrata Independiente party (Independent Democratic Union, UDI) have even called upon newly-elected President Piñera to hold a nationwide plebiscite on whether or not the death penalty should be reinstated once he takes office in March this year, arguing that “there are human beings who do not deserve to be fed and to live [even if] in jail”.

The irony of the very same political party campaigning vociferously against abortion on the basis of the sanctity of life has not been lost on many Chileans.

The death penalty in Chile and Latin America

In 1863, Venezuela became the first country in the world to abolish the death penalty, and there are just two countries in Latin America where the death penalty can legally be applied for civil crimes; in Guatemala and in Cuba – where it was last applied in 2003. There are 58 countries worldwide which still have and use the death penalty.

Chile only abolished capital punishment for civil court cases in 2001 during the government of Ricardo Lagos, although the death penalty had last been applied in 1985.

In 1991, Chile ratified the San José Pact – also known as the American Convention on Human Rights – aimed at respecting the “essential rights of man”. This established strong restrictions on the use of capital punishment and restricted the possibility of its reintroduction.

An unlikely eventuality

For the Ley Sophia protest to be successful in achieving its initial aim, Chile would need to withdraw from the San José Pact and risk of tarnishing its international reputation. Aside from the legal difficulties associated with reintroducing capital punishment, there are other reasons why many remain sceptical.

Firstly, as argued by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, the death penalty is considered to “breach two essential human rights: the right to life, and the right to be free from torture”.

Furthermore, in the words of Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general, it is “a symptom of a culture of violence and not a solution to it”.

What comes next?

Due to Chile’s ratification of the San José Pact and the tendency to move away from capital punishment in most developed countries, it is unlikely that the measure will be reintroduced in Chile.

Even the representatives of the Ley Sophia movement have made public declarations expressing that legal difficulties and moral concerns have led them to rephrase their demands, asking now for stronger punishment measures such as chemical castration for perpetrators.

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The future of the ‘Ley Sophia’ movement rests at the feet of President-elect Sebastián Piñera. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

In any case, the flames of a stoically-fought and controversial debate have been fanned, and an opinion poll conducted by Cadem last week showed that 65% of those asked were in favour of the restitution of the death penalty in certain cases.

UDI deputies will likely follow through on their commitment and insist that Piñera holds a public vote on the issue. The president elect, however, made it clear in in 2009 that he did not believe in death penalty, and that he did not think it should be reconsidered in Chile.

The central totem of the debate is Chileans’ frustration with the inefficiencies of the country’s judicial system, which translates into impunity for those who commit. This does not necessarily mean that sentences are inappropriate, but rather that the system should be made more efficient in applying them when needed.

It is up to Piñera to address these failings over the course of his administration – but it is unlikely that, whatever Ley Sophia becomes, he will begin this process by passing a measure anywhere near as drastic as reintroducing the death penalty.

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