A Committed Friendship
Alumna Linn Shapiro has funded an AUWCL initiative that celebrates the life’s work of extraordinary Chilean human rights lawyer Fabiola Letelier.
“Justice is a constant struggle.”
Linn Shapiro, CAS/M.A. ’90, CAS/Ph.D. ’96, absorbed that principle as the child of politically active parents, but she came to understand it even more profoundly through her work with Chile’s firebrand of human rights advocacy, Fabiola Letelier. Linn is honoring her late friend’s life and monumental contributions by contributing $25,000 to establish the Fabiola Letelier Fund for International Criminal Law Research in the American University Washington College of Law.
“Fabiola was the dean of human rights lawyers in Chile. She saved lives and won individual cases, and she also built a social-movement organization that still exists today,” says Linn.
The Fabiola Letelier Fund for International Criminal Law Research will support research activities conducted through the War Crimes Research Office at the AUWCL into conflict-driven sexual and gender-based violence in Latin America.
Linn and Fabiola’s friendship began in the mid-1970’s in Washington, D.C. Linn was part of the influential Chile solidarity movement, helping Chilean political exiles raise funds for their compatriots back home and oust dictator Augusto Pinochet. Long fascinated by international affairs, she was keenly aware of the imprisonment, torture, and killing being inflicted on Chileans by the brutal Pinochet dictatorship that had overthrown the government of President Salvador Allende in 1973.
Linn became close friends with one of Fabiola’s children, who introduced Linn to his mother. “I knew Fabiola and trusted her, so when she asked me to come to Chile for the first time in 1983, I started working with her organization, CODEPU. It became one of the three major human rights organizations in the country, and Fabiola stayed with it for 20 years,” Linn said.
“To be asked to be part of work to restore democracy in Chile, if only just to do fundraising and public relations, was a little bit scary, but also made me feel very connected to something critically important.”
CODEPU, the People’s Rights Defense Committee, united grassroots opposition to the dictatorship and broke new ground in the field of legal defense. Because Chile was governed by a military dictatorship with a subservient judicial system, domestic legal action to support those whose human rights were violated was impossible. CODEPU and the Chilean human rights movement pioneered how to use international human rights statutes when domestic laws are abrogated.
Fabiola’s human rights activism began on the day of Pinochet’s coup. Grief and anger at the murder of her brother consolidated her commitment. Economist, politician, and diplomat, Orlando Letelier had served in the Allende administration, been arrested and tortured, and made his way to Washington. (He taught briefly at American University.) In 1976, he was assassinated by a car bomb as he drove to work near the Chilean Embassy. In the car was a colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt; she was also killed. It was the first act of international terrorism on U.S. soil.
Tenacious and principled, Fabiola carried on by vowing to bring to justice the perpetrators of her brother’s murder. She waged a 15-year legal battle that resulted in the 1995 conviction of the former head of Chile’s secret police and his second-in-command. This marked the first time in Latin America that a secret police chief had been imprisoned.
“She never exhibited fear, and I know she was afraid at times. But you never got the feeling that anything was going to stand in her way,” Linn said.
Fabiola received Chile’s national human rights award in 2018. She passed away in 2021 at the age of 92.
“We could not walk anywhere in Santiago without her being stopped and someone saying, ‘Doña Fabiola, thank you so much for your work.’ She was a force of nature,” Linn remembered.
“She could talk to anyone on the street and then sit with an international leader. She had a beautiful singing voice. She loved to listen to music, dance, and drink wine. She had a range of energies that drew people to her.”
Linn hopes AUWCL students will be inspired by Fabiola’s life story as an outstanding lawyer who used her legal skills to advance the practice of international human rights law and build a unified social movement to restore democracy to her country.
“Fabiola once said, ‘La historia me obligó a vivir como una luchadora social’ (‘History forced me to live as a social activist’). She was history.”