Fri, Jan 07, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Believers in justice are finally closing in on Augusto Pinochet

By Jorge Arrate

The court battle on whether or not to punish former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is now over. After prolonged reflection on medical reports regarding Pinochet's health, Judge Juan Guzman found him mentally fit to stand trial on nine counts of kidnapping and one count of homicide. Chile's Supreme Court has now upheld that indictment. All of those crimes were committed during "Operation Condor," a Latin America-wide program among the continent's dictators to physically eliminate their opponents from the Left.

Judge Guzman also determined that the former dictator is not insane and knows right from wrong. This is critical, as Pinochet has sought to deny his competency. A recent "vascular incident" that sent him to a military hospital -- where he regained consciousness and motor skills -- will furnish excuses to request new medical examinations and delays as criminal proceedings move forward.

But Guzman's efforts to bring the dictator to justice should not remain isolated. Other judges and official bodies need to keep the pressure on Pinochet.

Much, for example, is still to be learned in cases such as the assassination of General Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires in 1974. Moreover, investigations by the US Congress into the Riggs Bank have uncovered the suspicious means by which Pinochet and his family obtained their wealth. These investigations need to be followed up with judicial action.

The investigation into the death in 1980 of former Chilean president Frei Montalva, the principal opponent of the dictatorship, has advanced but needs to be pursued vigorously in the courts. Frei's death implicates the repressive apparatus that Pinochet and Manuel Contreras, his "right hand," managed in lockstep.

Operation Condor, the Riggs, Frei, and Prats affairs, and many other crimes are documented in the recent report on torture and political imprisonment written by the special commission established by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. Arriving 30 years after the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, the report has both unsettled and empowered Chileans.

Seemingly invincible for many years, the former dictator's final collapse began in London in October 1998, when Spanish law-yers, Judge Baltasar Garzon of Spain and Scotland Yard brought charges against him. Pinochet responded with arrogance, provoking a huge sense of shame for Chile's young democracy. Pinochet's ability to evade the courts cast a dark shadow over the country's military institutions and made many Chileans wonder how far the country had really gone in its transition to democracy.

Without Judge Garzon's insistence on pursuing the matter, prosecuting Pinochet would have been nearly impossible, owing to powerful opposition from wealthy and media-savvy Chileans. The Chilean government's excessive caution -- rooted in fear of instability that could affect the basic rights regained after the dictatorship -- also helped Pinochet evade justice. Indeed, Chile's courts could not have garnered the necessary public support to free them from their inertia without the push Garzon provided.

It would also have been impossible to consider bringing Pinochet to justice without the extraordinarily important human-rights struggles waged by victims' organizations, victims' families and jurists who, against all the odds, remained true to their cause for decades. Few organizations in Chile have been as capable or as successful as those dedicated to human rights. Because of the tenacity and passion of ordinary Chileans demanding that the state fulfill its mandate to protect their human rights, Pinochet finds himself before the bar of justice, and others who used their power to kill, torture or exile their fellow citizens are being pursued.

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