Pinochet Mocks Justice


These are bitter days in Chile for those who suffered during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990. On July 1 the Chilean Supreme Court ruled that the former dictator would not have to stand trial for his heinous crimes as dictator because he is mentally and physically incompetent. Under Chilean law, anyone who is “crazy or demented” cannot be brought to trial.

Although Pinochet is 86 years old, the stark truth is that he made a mockery of justice. He has feigned poor health and memory problems ever since his immunity from prosecution was lifted in Chile in August 2000. Pinochet himself gave the lie to the July 1 ruling of the Supreme Court a few days later. For the first time in months he appeared in public.

When he spoke with complicit ecclesiastical and political figures, he told them, “I am not crazy.” In a letter he personally drafted to resign from the Chilean Congress as “Senator-for-Life so he would receive a hefty pension as a former president, he made it clear that his mind was as clever and sinister as ever. He arrogantly defended his overthrow of the democratically elected regime of Salvador Allende, declaring he had only seized power for the “harmony” and “greatness of Chile.”

Pinochet’s cunning and deceit is not the only reason he evaded trial. Most of the political class of Chile, including the current socialist president, Ricardo Lagos, are complicit in orchestrating his escape from justice. The month that Pinochet’s immunity as Senator-for-Life was lifted, the highest ranking official in Lagos’ government, the Minister of Interior, Jose Miguel Insulza, declared Pinochet should be exempted from prosecution for health reasons.

He stated Pinochet “will not be sent to prison.” Then in October 2000 Lagos in a private gathering of the leaders of the major business associations told them he knew they were preoccupied with the Pinochet case, but he reassured them the proceedings against Pinochet would “end well and quickly.”

The only problem for Lagos was that the human rights organizations in Chile and their lawyers, along with Judge Juan Guzman who was in charge of the case, did not concur with Lagos’ wishes. A representative of the Lagos cabinet went to Guzman to ask him to be lenient in the upcoming physical and mental exams. Guzman’s curt response was: “Look young man, I’m going to do as my conscience tells me. Good bye.” In fact Guzman hardened his position and moved aggressively in the Pinochet case.

But as the months dragged on, Pinochet’s lawyers effectively used what some have called the “London scenario” to evade trial. Pinochet was first arrested in London in October 1998 when Judge Baltasar Garzon of Spain filed a legal petition for Pinochet’s extradition to stand trial in Spanish courts for his crimes against humanity.

For 503 days Pinochet was detained and under house arrest as a series of British courts, including a judicial panel of the House of Lords, ruled that Pinochet should be extradited. But the politicians of Britain, led by social democratic leader Tony Blair and his Home Minister Jack Straw, grew tired of the process. On the basis of questionable medical exams, Straw ordered that Pinochet should be sent home to Chile for health and “humanitarian concerns.”

One clear lesson of the Pinochet Affair is that politicians have little interest in seeing that justice is administered in a fair and impartial manner. Be it Lagos, Blair or Bush, the primary concern of the ruling elites is stability and a quiescent public that is not stirred up by the passionate discussions of historic injustices or by the efforts of human rights activists to pursue those rulers who flagrantly violate human rights. Most politicians are only interested in pursing “evil doers,” like Saddam Hussein or Slovodan Milosevic, when it advances their self-serving conception of “state interests.”

While these are painful times in Chile for the families of the more than 3,000 victims of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody reign, it is important to remember that the Pinochet case marked a significant advance in the quest for human rights. The Pinochet Affair—the series of events extending from the detention of Pinochet and the rulings against him by the House of Lords to the lifting of his parliamentary immunity when he returned to Chile and his indictment by Chilean courts—represented a surprising and remarkable victory for the international human rights community.

Even after the July 1 ruling, Pinochet continues to be sought by courts around the world with extradition requests pending in Argentina and Spain. Most importantly the principal of “universal jurisdiction” was effectively encoded in international law due to the proceedings against Pinochet in London, meaning that judges and courts in one nation can apprehend and try a former head of state from another country for crimes against humanity.

Following the ruling against Pinochet, other national leaders who had engaged in state sponsored terrorism were pursued and some have been apprehended and indicted. Judge Garzon who requested the extradition of Pinochet, also ordered the arrest of Argentine military officers who murdered or disappeared upwards of thirty thousand people in that country’s “dirty war” from 1976-1983.

One of the more interesting cases in regards to Argentina is that of Ricardo Miguel Cavallo who went to Mexico after the Argentine military abandoned power and became director of Mexico’s national motor-vehicle registry. When Garzon requested the extradition of Cavallo to stand trial in Spain for his crimes against humanity, a Mexican judge ordered his detention and approved the extradition request. And just days after Pinochet escaped prosecution in Chile, Argentine courts ordered the arrest of more than 30 officials involved in atrocities in the dirty war.

Pinochet’s arrest also advanced the cause of global justice in other countries and continents. In Africa, a Senegalese court indicted the former dictator of Chad, Hissene Habre, placing him under house arrest in 1999 for the torture and death of hundreds of victims.

Dutch courts prosecuted former Suriname dictator Desi Bouterse on charges of torture. Human rights organizations have also been actively pursuing and calling for the arrest of Uganda’s Idi Amin residing in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Miriam in Zimbabwe, Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner in Brazil and Haiti’s Emmanuel “Toto” Constant in the United States.

Perhaps the most intriguing consequence of the Pinochet Affair are the calls for the arrest of Henry Kissinger for his involvement in genocidal activities in countries ranging from Cambodia and East Timor to Chile. French and Chilean courts have issued orders for the interrogation of Kissinger relating to a continental terrorist organization, Operation Condor, and the murder of U.S. journalist Charles Horman in Chile in 1973. Small wonder that Kissinger wrote an article in Foreign Affairs decrying the use of “universal jurisdiction” to apprehend human rights violators.

While Chilean courts have exempted Pinochet, the country’s human rights lawyers and activists are redoubling their efforts against the other officers and officials of the dictatorship who engaged in atrocities. Sergio Arellano Stark and Pedro Espinoza, the two other military officers who were charged along with the Pinochet for murdering and disappearing 75 people in the Caravan of Death in 1973, are under arrest and awaiting trail. Scores of other Chilean military officials are also under indictment.

Patricia Verdugo, who in 1988 first documented and reported on the Caravan of Death, asserts that for her and many Chileans the Supreme Court ’s ruling on Pinochet reflects “the complicity, the cowardliness and impotency” of rulers in Chile and elsewhere. But she adds “the world knows” what happened to the tens of thousands who were murdered, disappeared and tortured by the dictatorship.

“Now it is my duty to continue writing and working so that my children, and the children of my children, will never forget.” Like other human rights activists in Chile around the world she states, “as the living we will never declare a truce” with those who murder or try to cover up the crimes of the past.

Roger Burbach has written extensively on Latin America, U.S. foreign policy and globalization. He is co-editor of “September 11 and the U.S. War” (City Lights Books), and is currently completing “The Pinochet Affair: Globalizing Human Rights.”

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