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Joan Jara, Who Found Justice for Husband Slain After Coup, Dies at 96

Joan Jara, a British-born dancer and instructor who dedicated herself to finding justice for her husband, Victor Jara, a popular Chilean folk singer and songwriter who was killed during the military coup d’état that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte to dictatorial power in 1973, died on Nov. 12 in Santiago, Chile. She was 96.

Her death was announced by the Victor Jara Foundation, a human rights initiative she established.

Justice came for Ms. Jara (pronounced Hara) in two ways, more than 40 years after her husband’s death: In a civil case filed by her and her two daughters that found Pedro Barrientos Núñez, a former Chilean Army lieutenant, liable for her husband’s death, and in legal proceedings in Chile that led to his arrest last month in Deltona, Fla., where he had been living for many years; he is expected to be extradited to Chile.

Mr. Jara, who was also a theater director and poet, sang about poverty and injustice. In “Manifiesto,” he sang in part:

My guitar is not for the rich

no, nothing like that.

My song is of the ladder

we are building to reach the stars.

Mr. Jara was a visible supporter of Salvador Allende, the Marxist who was elected president of Chile in 1970. On Sept. 11, 1973, the Jaras were at home with their daughters, Manuela and Amanda, listening to Mr. Allende deliver a speech. Suddenly, the speech was cut off and replaced with military marches.

“There was somehow a coup in the air,” Ms. Jara told the Democracy Now! radio program in 2013.

Right-wing military officers, supported by the C.I.A., had stormed the presidential palace and overthrown Mr. Allende, who was believed to have killed himself with an assault rifle that day.

Despite his and his wife’s fears that something dire had happened, Mr. Jara drove to State Technical University in Santiago, the capital, where he taught theater and was scheduled to sing at an appearance by Mr. Allende.

“It was the last time I saw him,” Ms. Jara said.

Mr. Jara, a member of the Communist Party, was rounded up the next day with other students and professors and taken to the Chile Stadium. As a prominent backer of Mr. Allende, he was easily recognized by General Pinochet’s soldiers. They shot him more than 40 times, twice in the head, and dumped his body outside a cemetery.

On Sept. 18, a city morgue worker went to Ms. Jara’s house and asked her what color underpants Mr. Jara had been wearing on the day he disappeared.

“What a strange question,” she said during her testimony in 2016 in the Florida civil trial, in U.S. District Court in Orlando. “But it wasn’t, because lately we had been on a journey to London. And so I was able to answer: ‘They are blue.’”

Her answer helped the morgue identify Mr. Jara’s body. When she arrived to claim it, she saw bodies piled up outside. Inside, among even more bodies, she found her husband’s corpse lying face up.

“His eyes were open,” she testified. “One eye was bloody and bruised. His hands were hanging in a strange — in a strange angle from his wrists in front of his chest and covered in blood.” She added, “I think I saw 20 large bullet holes in his abdomen and an enormous wound in the center of his body.”

With the help of friends, she bought a coffin and a cemetery plot and had a hasty burial.

“There was no hope of thinking of having a funeral,” she testified.

Once she arrived home, she told Manuela, her older daughter, that her father had been killed. “And I will never forget, never forget her scream, a terrible scream when she heard,” she told the court.

Still, she felt fortunate.

“So many people here in Chile, so many families, they still don’t know the destiny of their loved ones,” Ms. Jara said in a video interview with The Times in 2018. “That is the worst fate.”

She and her daughters fled to London, where they stayed for about a decade before returning to Chile in the mid-1980s. (General Pinochet would remain in power until 1990.) There she opened a ballet dancing training center, Centro de Danza Espiral, with her former husband, Patricio Bunster, a Chilean dancer. She created the Victor Jara Foundation in 1993.

Ms. Jara was born Joan Alison Turner on July 20, 1927, in London. Her father managed a typewriter company and later sold antiques. Her mother was a homemaker.

Joan wanted to become a dancer when, in July 1944, she went to see the Ballets Jooss, a German modern dance company, at the Haymarket Theater in London. She attended a dance school in London and was hired by the Ballets Jooss in 1951.

The Daily Record and Mail of Glasgow wrote in 1953 that Ms. Turner and Rolf Alexander were the “outstanding principals in the Ballets Jooss’s performance of ‘Journey in the Fog’,” a piece created by the company’s founder, Kurt Jooss.

That year, she married Mr. Bunster, a dance partner of hers in the troupe. They moved to Chile in 1954 and divorced six years later when she was pregnant with Manuela.

Ms. Jara later became a dancer in the Chilean National Ballet and also taught dance at the University of Chile, where she met Mr. Jara. They married in 1965.

After his death, Ms. Jara found her voice, said one of her lawyers, Kathleen Roberts.

“When Victor was killed, she began a second life, where she had to speak out all of the time to seek justice,” Ms. Roberts said by telephone. “And not just for him but for the great many victims of the coup and dictatorship. She felt a real sense of obligation.”

In 1978, Ms. Jara and her daughters began the arduous process of trying to find out who killed Mr. Jara. They filed court applications to open investigations into his death, but these went nowhere until 2009, when a former Chilean soldier said he had witnessed Mr. Jara’s torture and saw Mr. Barrientos shoot him.

But no one knew where Mr. Barrientos was until 2012, when a Chilean television network located him in Florida. That year, the Santiago Court of Appeals charged him in absentia with the murder of Mr. Jara and requested his extradition, which only now, after 11 years, has come close to fruition. Mr. Barrientos has insisted that he is innocent.

In 2013, the Jara family, with help from the Center for Justice and Accountability, a human rights organization that represents survivors of torture and other abuses, took Mr. Barrientos to court under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, which Congress enacted to bring accountability to human rights violators living in the United States.

In addition to finding Mr. Barrientos liable for the death of Mr. Jara, a jury ordered him to pay the Jara family $28 million in compensatory and punitive damages. “Victor could never have imagined that justice for this case would occur in the United States,” Ms. Jara said after the verdict.

Part of the delay in extradition is that Mr. Barrientos was a naturalized citizen. But that status was revoked by the district court this year because he had concealed “material facts related to his military service in his immigration application,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Jara’s survivors include her daughters Amanda Jara Turner and Manuela Bunster. In 2003, the arena where Mr. Jara was killed was renamed Victor Jara Stadium.

Ms. Jara might never have imagined that her husband’s song “Manifiesto” would be performed in 2013 by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as an encore in a concert in Santiago at Movistar Arena.

“In 1988, we played for Amnesty International in Mendoza, Argentina, but Chile was in our hearts,” Mr. Springsteen told the audience in Spanish. “We met many families of desaparecidos” — the thousands of people who were “disappeared” under the Pinochet dictatorship — “which had pictures of their loved ones.”

He added: “A political musician, Victor Jara, remains a great inspiration. It’s a gift to be here and I take it with humbleness.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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