Prisoner Pinochet

By Kornbluh, Peter | The Nation, December 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

Prisoner Pinochet

Kornbluh, Peter, The Nation

The Dictator and the Quest for Justice


It was just before midnight when two detectives from Scotland Yard's organized crime division slipped into the quiet halls of the upscale London Clinic. The British agents quickly secured the private room in which the former dictator of Chile, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, was recovering from back surgery. With hallmark efficiency, the detectives ordered his protesting bodyguards outside, disconnected his phone, removed his television and posted eight armed guards outside the door. They then served Pinochet with a "priority red warrant"--sent through Interpol from Spain--requesting the general's location and detention for "crimes of genocide and terrorism."

Within minutes the British, collaborating with the Spanish authorities, accomplished what the Chilean courts have refused to do since Pinochet stepped down as dictator in 1990--they placed him under arrest. For that reason alone, October 16, 1998, will forever be remembered in the annals of human rights history.

As this article goes to press, legal proceedings and political calculations continue in Britain over Pinochet's fate. The British government, facing legal obligations to extradite Pinochet to Spain, may yet allow him to return to Chile. But the highly dramatic decision by the British House of Lords on November 25--Pinochet's 83rd birthday--which overruled a London lower court ruling that Pinochet had immunity from prosecution, makes it far more likely that the former dictator will eventually face some form of judicial reckoning for his crimes against humanity.

The prosecution of Pinochet, whose name became a virtual synonym for state-sponsored terror during his seventeen-year regime, has become a historic turning point for international and national efforts to hold him and other tyrants accountable. During his detention in London, a cascade of murder charges has rained down on the former dictator from more than a half-dozen other European countries. His prolonged arrest, and the debate it provoked, has broken the conspiracy of silence in Chile about the past [see Marc Cooper, page 24]. The reverberations of the Pinochet arrest have been felt in Washington, where the Clinton Administration has all but come to the dictator's defense even as the cover-up of US complicity with him is slowly eroding.

Indeed, the long-hoped-for capture of Pinochet has radically energized and empowered the human rights movement, as well as vindicated his many victims. "This is a 100 percent moral victory," says Joyce Horman, widow of Charles Horman--one of the two US citizens who "disappeared" in the first days of Pinochet's rule. The story of his arrest is, in essence, about the unrelenting pursuit of justice by those Pinochet abused--their quarter-century-long struggle against the repression of memory, elimination of accountability and violation of history.

Spanish Superjudges Begin the Hunt

The genesis of General Pinochet's world-stunning arrest can be found in a quiet, methodical hunt that got under way--virtually unnoticed--in the summer of 1996 in Madrid. A team of dedicated and creative lawyers, known as the Progressive Association of Prosecutors, filed two parallel complaints of genocide and terrorism against former Chilean and Argentine military commanders--including Pinochet--in a novel legal effort to hold their regimes accountable for the deaths of hundreds of Spaniards. More than 300 citizens of Spain or their relatives lost their lives during Argentina's "dirty war" and Chile's military dictatorship. In particular, the case of Spanish citizen Carmelo Soria helped to trigger Madrid's quest to bring Pinochet to justice.

A Spanish economist working in Chile for the UN on a diplomatic passport, Soria was picked up by agents of Pinochet's secret police, the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), on July 15, 1976. According to human rights investigators, his captors dragged Soria into the basement of a DINA safehouse and, during a torture session, broke his neck. …

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