Geopolitics

Its Horrific Past Exposed, A Notorious Sect Lingers On In Central Chile

Chile’s Colonia Dignidad is infamous as a place where children were raped and opponents of the Pinochet regime tortured. The sect’s founder, serial child abuser and ex-Nazi doctor Paul Schäfer, died last year. But his right hand man, Hartmut Hopp, is on t

Chile's Colonia Dignidad has changed its named to Villa Baveria in an effort to turn the page on its dark past
Chile's Colonia Dignidad has changed its named to Villa Baveria in an effort to turn the page on its dark past
Sandra Weiss

BERLIN -- He was the right-hand man at Chile's infamous Colonia Dignidad. Hartmut Hopp made sure the child abuse committed by sect leader Paul Schäfer didn't become publically known and oversaw the sect's convoluted finances. Hopp, a doctor, was a key figure in one of the darkest chapters in relations between Germany and Chile. Condemned by a Chilean court to five years in jail for child abuse, in May he was apparently able to slip through the net and head back to Germany.

Citing evidence of his escape to Germany, including e-mails with accomplices, Chilean authorities have applied for his extradition. Interpol also has an international arrest warrant out against the 66-year-old. Hopp's wife moved back to Germany last April, and his daughter-in-law confirmed to the Chilean journalists' association that he was in Germany.

Hopp was part of the founding generation of a sect that settled on an estate known as Colonia Dignidad, and he was one of the people closest to the now-deceased pederast Paul Schäfer, who headed the sect. Schäfer, who was known to authorities for abusing children in Germany, moved to Chile in 1961 and founded the settlement, a "state within the state" as Chile's first post-dictatorship president, Patricio Aylwin, always referred to it.

Along with criminal activity like child abuse and arms smuggling, opponents of Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet's military government (1973-1990) were tortured there. Schäfer maintained good relations with Pinochet as well as with the police and justice authorities. For that reason, it wasn't until a few years after the dictatorship came to an end that authorities moved against him. The sect was also protected by various German players who to this day are holding most of its records under lock and key, as questioning of left-wing party members in the German federal parliament revealed on July 1.

Hopp should be safe in Germany, as the country does not extradite its citizens. It is possible, however, that Hopp isn't just trying to protect himself: the sect's funds, estimated to be at least 3 million dollars, are believed to have been transferred abroad, and there is real estate in Canada, in South America, and in Central America.

A new beginning?

Anxious to get their hands on these assets are not only Chilean authorities, but also various children and grandchildren of original sect members. There are millions in debts and reparation payments outstanding, and these have to be paid off before the settlement can be converted into the flourishing business that the young generation sees it as becoming.

Sect members no longer follow the old rules. Now, they can marry, drive cars, watch TV, and they are paid for their work. In their bid to turn the place into a tourism venue, they are anxious to polish up its damaged image. After all, Colonia Dignidad wasn't just a bizarre sect. It was also an empire worth millions.

The prize possession is the 16,000-hectare estate at the foot of the Chilean Andes, now called "Villa Baviera," which has been spruced up in the hopes of new beginnings: the watch towers and barbed wire are gone, and doors are open to visitors.

Friendly young men like Martin Matthusen, today's spokesman for the community, greet visitors in broken German and speak openly about their traumatic upbringing at the hands of an old-school Nazi who forbid couples in the community to marry, took children away from their parents, held them captive and punished them with electric shocks.

Matthusen and Co. may prefer beer, lederhosen and dirndls to Schäfer's youth choirs, but behind the scenes there's a tough fight underway for the assets of what was once a flourishing complex of forestland, real estate, construction and transportation firms. The 180 settlers remaining today have only the sad remnants of all that. Schäfer's strict rules about sex meant a low birth rate – 54 of the 87 adults now living there are retirement age, and while there are 31 children many of them are severely traumatized.

Last year, due to unpaid bills, the state utilities company cut off electrical supply, which meant that the cheese making facility, butcher shop, bakery and other enterprises had to shut down. Matthusen was able to negotiate a compromise with authorities: a reparation fund of 4.3 million euros for victims of human rights abuses in exchange for the embargo against the settlement being lifted. That in turn made it possible to auction off various assets including several luxury vehicles, and a small plane that belonged to Schäfer. However, most of the capital had been transferred abroad shortly after the 1996 arrest warrant issued against settlement leaders.

Key figures in addition to Hopp are Peter Schmidt, Schäfer‘s bodyguard who according to Matthusen got an estate in Argentina; Schäfer‘s designated successor, Hans Riesland, and his former chauffeur, Reinhard Döring, both of whom returned to Germany; and estate manager José Miguel Stegmeier, one of the few Chileans in Schäfer's inner circle. Miguel Stegmeier was allegedly involved in real estate deals and shifted substantial sums of money.

However Stegmeier, who is a member of the pro-Pinochet right-wing UDI party, is a political protegé of current President Sebastián Piñera's government, which even appointed him prefect of Chile's south-central Bio Bio region. Even though revelations about his past posted by the El Mostrador Internet portal forced him to resign after just three days, they did not lead to court proceedings against him.

Judge Jorge Zepeda is the man who not only called for Hopp's extradition but who is also investigating claims of illegal activities formerly carried out at the Colonia, among them tax evasion and forced labor. If his thesis that Schäfer was an arms dealer turns out to be accurate, then the entire estate will be transferred to Chilean tax authorities.

Zepeda has been able to prove that arms were hidden on the estate and that international arms dealer Gerhard Mertins visited. More, however, according to Matthusen, has not come to light. "The economic success is the fruit of our work and that of our fathers, who weren't paid," he says. "We're not responsible for Schäfer‘s machinations; we're victims too."

Read the original article in German

Photo - rbrands

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ