Latin 'Untouchables' Face Heat ; This Week, Chile's Supreme Court Is Hearing Appeals to an Immunity Law That Has Shielded the Military from Prosecution

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In recent months, Latin America has made significant progress in the struggle to redress the human rights abuses committed during the dictatorships of the 1970s and '80s, say experts.

Chile is the latest domino, as its Supreme Court began hearings this week in a historic appeal of an amnesty law decreed by the country's one-time strongman, former Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The 1978 decree has shielded military and police from prosecution for murders or torture committed during the worst years of repression after Mr. Pinochet's 1973 coup. An estimated 3,200 Chileans were killed, or disappeared after being detained, in a widespread campaign to root out Pinochet's opposition.

Pinochet has long been seen as an untouchable in Chile. But in 1998, a Spanish judge used international instruments to argue for Pinochet's extradition from London. He was eventually returned to Chile though he has yet to stand trial, in part because of his deteriorating health.

Roberto Garreton, regional representative for Latin America for the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, says Pinochet's arrest in London was nevertheless a watershed.

"That arrest had a fantastic effect," he says. "This was unthinkable 20 years ago, but in Chile, there are now 300 military officials with cases pending a resolution of the amnesty appeal, which should happen any day now." Mr. Garreton says it was a breakthrough not only for judges in Chile, but across the region.

"There is evidence of a consolidated advance across the region," he says. "If we win the amnesty appeal in Chile, it will widen a door that has been opened by the decision in Argentina."

Two weeks ago, Argentina's Supreme Court rejected its own amnesty. The court declared that crimes against humanity can never be prescribed. "It's an important precedent for the region," says Francisco Bravo, one of the lawyers leading Chile's amnesty appeal. "It's hard to tell what impact it will have here, since our court is pretty guarded in its jurisprudence. We'll soon see what signal it will send."

The advances in Chilean and Argentine courts have mirrored developments elsewhere. In Mexico, a special prosecutor filed charges against former Mexican President Luis Echeverria and 11 other officials in July. The charges were in connection with the 1971 "Corpus Christi massacre," in which police and paramilitary forces are alleged to have killed at least 30 student protesters in Mexico City. …