The colony

German court refuses to imprison cult leader linked to child abuse

chile colonia dignidad
Welcome to hell. Source: dpa

For decades after World War II, hundreds of people, many of them German and former Nazis, lived in a secluded enclave in Chile called Colonia Dignidad. The colony’s peaceful facade hid much darker things, a totalitarian religious cult fueled by fear. Longtime leader and ex-Nazi Paul Schäfer was convicted of the sexual abuse of children in 2006, and the group is believed to have carried out torture for the secret police of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Many people were killed at the hillside location.

Hartmut Hopp was a close associate of Mr. Schäfer’s, working as a doctor in the colony and sometimes acting as its spokesman. In 2011, he was sentenced to five years in prison for 16 counts of aiding the sexual abuse of children over several decades. But he fled to Germany shortly thereafter, where he was protected from extradition as a German citizen. Unperturbed, Chile pushed for German courts to enforce his sentence, and a case was launched.

This week, it came to an end at a regional court in Düsseldorf. It decided not to enforce the Chilean verdict, finding that it had failed to prove Mr. Hopp had commited any offences punishable under German law. The ruling means the 74-year-old will not serve any prison time. German prosecutors are now considering filing new charges, not only accusing him of aiding child abuse but of complicity in the 1973 murder of three opposition activists in Chile and the forced administration of psychoactive drugs.

Hartmut Hopp, colonia dignidad
Hartmut Hopp. Source: dpa

Colonia Dignidad was rotten from the start. Mr. Schäfer, a lay preacher who was accused of sexual abuse of children in Germany, founded the colony with utopian ideals in 1961 after seeking refuge in Chile at the end of World War II. It looked like a quaint Bavarian village and offered local people essential services with its hospital and schools.

Accusations of sexual abuse, imprisonment, hard labor and forced medication arose early on but were swept under the rug. After Pinochet’s junta took control of Chile in 1973, Colonia Dignidad enjoyed special protections for providing the regime with weapons and the location for a torture center.

The commune was under Mr. Schäfer’s strict control, with men separated from women, children separated from parents. People living in Colonia Dignidad adopted Chilean children from poor families, continually providing new victims for Mr. Schäfer, nicknamed the “permanent uncle.” Victims estimate he abused more than 30,000 boys over 30 years.

In 1997, Chilean prosecutors filed charges against Mr. Schäfer, who then fled to Argentina. He was arrested in 2005 and convicted in 2006 of sexually abusing 25 children. He died in a Chilean prison four years later aged 88.

pinochet victims, chile colonia dignidad
Pinochet's victims. Source: pda

The cult was the basis for the Emma Watson film “The Colony” in 2015, which revived interest in the story. At a screening of the film, then Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said German embassy officials in Chile looked away for decades. While a diplomat’s report on the colony described it as “tidy and clean,” even returning escaped children to their parents there, the name Colonia Dignidad was synonymous with child abuse and torture for Chileans. Germany’s intelligence agency was aware of torture accusations since at least 1966.

Mr. Steinmeier admitted diplomats did not do enough for the German citizens living there. The foreign ministry said in 2016 it would declassify documents on the colony, and a German-Chilean committee is exploring reparations for the victims.

Since the curtain was pulled back on Colonia Dignidad, Chilean authorities have found mass graves on the site. The colony is now known as Villa Baviera, and sells itself as a fun Bavarian village tourist destination. It’s a bizarre world, but perhaps no more bizarre than Krefeld, the western German city where Mr. Hopp can continue to enjoy his freedom.

Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author:

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