SANTIAGO, Chile — Boris Weisfeiler, a mathematics professor at Penn State, liked to hike alone. A naturalized American citizen who immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1975, he had explored remote parts of Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Peru. On Dec. 24, 1984, Mr. Weisfeiler embarked on a hiking tour of southern Chile while the country was under military rule.
Two weeks later, he vanished.
In 2012, eight retired police and military officers were finally indicted with his abduction, a breakthrough after years of cover-ups and diplomatic intrigue.
But now the mystery of what happened to Mr. Weisfeiler will probably remain unsolved — because a judge has closed the case.
The judge, Jorge Zepeda, has put an end to the 16-year investigation into Mr. Weisfeiler’s death by applying a statute of limitations on the case, clearing all those charged, denying the family any compensation and failing to establish what had ultimately happened to Mr. Weisfeiler.
Mr. Weisfeiler’s sister, Olga Weisfeiler, of Newton, Mass., said she was devastated by the ruling and planned to appeal. Since taking steps to reopen the case in 2000, she has traveled to Chile every year in search of the truth about her brother.
“In all these years, I was repeatedly told that I must trust Chile’s judicial system,” she said. “Now I can’t find the right words to express my extreme disappointment in that system and particularly in Judge Zepeda. Such a decision is a shame for the Chilean justice.”
Mr. Weisfeiler’s backpack was found on a riverbank 10 days after he disappeared in early January 1985, and an inquiry quickly concluded that he had drowned trying to cross Los Sauces, a river 225 miles south of the capital, Santiago, and near the Argentine border. Within two months, the case was closed.
But more than 450 United States government documents declassified in June 2000 told a very different story. The local judge involved in the 1985 investigation believed in a “more sinister explanation” for the disappearance, a belief shared by the American Embassy, according to an April 1986 memorandum from the United States consul general in Santiago to the ambassador at the time, Harry G. Barnes Jr.
The records opened hitherto unknown leads and potential sources that pointed to the police and military intelligence. A set of these documents dealt with an anonymous informant who spoke of Mr. Weisfeiler’s captivity in Colonia Dignidad, a secretive German enclave just miles from where he was last seen that collaborated with the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
According to the documents, a man claiming to have been part of a military unit that swept up Mr. Weisfeiler told officials at the American Embassy in 1987 that the patrol had turned the American over to Colonia Dignidad.
“Later on, we found that this person, after being savagely interrogated, was made to kneel on the ground and was murdered with a shot in the nape of his neck,” the man said, according to declassified documents. “This execution was carried out solely by the Germans, who took advantage of the absence of Chilean authorities.”
That account was never verified, but another document said the embassy found it to be believable “given Colonia Dignidad’s reputation.”
In 2012, Judge Zepeda charged three police officers and four members of a military patrol with kidnapping in the case and another police officer as an accomplice. He established that the police had assumed Mr. Weisfeiler was a foreign “extremist” who had crossed the Argentine border illegally. They later covered up his arrest and disappearance.
But the ruling issued last Friday, and released this week, said Mr. Weisfeiler was the victim of a common crime, not a human rights violation.
“This ruling is a serious setback in the judiciary’s evolution in justice for human rights violations,” said Hernán Fernández, the lawyer representing the Weisfeiler family. “Its arguments are legally unsustainable and contradict the facts.”
Over the past two decades, Chile’s judiciary has come to consider human rights violations as crimes against humanity, in keeping with international law, and therefore not subject to any amnesty or statute of limitations. This definition has allowed Chilean courts to charge more 1,370 people suspected of being involved in government-sponsored crimes committed from the onset of the dictatorship in 1973, and to put 117 of them behind bars.
But Judge Zepeda, who on March 1 began presiding over the Santiago Court of Appeals, said he believed that the defendants were not following orders from higher-ups as part of a government-sponsored act. He based his argument on the findings of two Chilean human rights commissions, in 1991 and 2011, which did not acknowledge the Weisfeiler disappearance as a human rights case, citing a lack of evidence.
The ruling goes on to say that the investigation in 1985 was “genuinely professional” and that the officers who abducted Mr. Weisfeiler acted “in good faith,” in compliance with their duty after getting reports about a suspicious man near the border.
Claiming that a four-year statute of limitations had long ago expired, the judge also turned down a request from the Weisfeiler family for damages.
“Even if this were only a common crime, it still falls short of any standards for a thorough investigation, regardless of the legal outcome,” said Luciano Fouillioux, a former executive secretary of the Interior Ministry’s human rights program and a member of one of the human rights commissions.
The American Embassy in Santiago issued a statement saying that it had “been assisting Dr. Olga Weisfeiler for several decades and would like nothing more than for justice to be done” in the case.
“After years of waiting patiently for the wheels of justice to turn in Chile, the judge has transformed an unresolved human rights atrocity into a common crime,” Ms. Weisfeiler said. “Worst of all, he has failed to answer the question that haunts me: Where is my brother? Where, when, and why was he murdered?”
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