Chile's New Regime Weighs Pinochet Impunity ; on Saturday, Ricardo Lagos Was Inaugurated as President, Pledging to Stem Military Power and Privilege

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Augusto Pinochet shuffles around the garden outside his vacation home on the coast - temporarily sheltered from the maelstrom he's whipped up in the outside world. But the former Chilean ruler can take solace in one unalterable fact. No matter how loudly human rights groups abroad and at home howl, the wheels of justice in Chile turn at a geologic pace.

On March 3, Mr. Pinochet returned here from London, where he had been detained 503 days for human rights abuses. Released on grounds of mental and physical infirmity, the general stunned onlookers at the Santiago airport when he rose from his wheelchair and waved to the crowds. Some alleged that this recovery la Lazarus, showed he had been faking his maladies previously.

How Chile handles the frail octogenarian's case will be a test of whether the nation, and the nascent presidency of Ricardo Lagos, are capable of facing and putting to rest its horrific past.

Pinochet is charged with endorsing the torture, kidnapping, and murder of thousands of Chileans. During his regime spanning 1973 to 1990, at least 3,197 people died or were detained and later disappeared without a trace. By this weekend, 71 cases had been filed against him - some representing dozens and even several hundred individuals still considered missing. Judge Juan Guzmn would like to bring the general in for questioning.

But there's a problem.

Prosecutors must first strip Pinochet of his immunity as a permanent member of the Senate - a comfortable post he arranged for himself. If that attempt is successful, Mr. Guzmn must then convince the appeals court of Pinochet's guilt before initiating an investigation. However, the Chilean Supreme Court - many of whose magistrates were named under Pinochet - can eventually overrule that decision.

"I don't have the slightest doubt in my mind that Pinochet will never be tried in Chile, and 99 percent of Chileans realize this," says Santiago human rights attorney Hector Salazar. "But that doesn't mean we won't pursue every avenue possible to bring Pinochet to justice."

That road will be rocky, and long.

If in fact the immunity is removed, Mr. Salazar says investigations alone - never mind a trial - could take up to five years.

But for opponents of Pinochet, there is hope that impunity can be avoided.

Currently, more than 70 armed-forces officers, police, and secret agents face their own trials in cases marching their way through Chile's snail-paced judicial system. Of these, 47 were military officers under Pinochet's regime. Some of the accused were involved in the "Caravan of Death," when political prisoners were summarily executed during a post-coup assault on prison camps. The men are being tried for kidnapping - a crime not covered by their military amnesty.

But at the same time, a bipartisan bill now in congress would give lifetime senators - Pinochet and, should they exercise the option, former President Patricio Aylwin and outgoing President Eduardo Frei - the choice to step down voluntarily with full benefits, pension, and immunity. …