Magazine article The American Prospect

Dictators in the Dock

Magazine article The American Prospect

Dictators in the Dock

Article excerpt

When General Augusto Pinochet stepped off a Chilean Air Force jet last March and into the welcoming embrace of the Chilean military, it seemed the ex-dictator's saga had finally come to an end. Wearing a pastel tie and pressed suit, Pinochet looked surprisingly fit as he walked past an honor guard and a military band before being whisked away by motorcade to a heavily guarded compound. After holding the former dictator for more than a year, the British government had finally sprung the general from his gilded cage when a government medical team ruled him unfit to stand trial. Pinochet's arrest in October 1998--at the request of a crusading Spanish prosecutor--had sent shock waves through a world unaccustomed to the sight of world leaders called to account for their crimes; his subsequent return to Chile seemed to signal a return to the old, familiar world of sovereignty, immunity, and--to many eyes--impunity.

But appearances were deceiving. Pinochet's arrest was an important moment for the development of international law, and his eventual release did little to diminish its importance. In fact, some observers, including Jose Zalaquett, a professor of law at the University of Chile and a former member of the Chilean National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, even argue that Pinochet's release was a hidden blessing for the cause of human rights. The British law lords' complex opinion had limited Pinochet's legal vulnerability to a small window of time and thus rendered any eventual prosecution of Pinochet in Spain quite difficult. For Zalaquett, Pinochet's release let stand the important precedent that former leaders were not immune from prosecution while avoiding the humiliation and setback of a possible acquittal. Other human rights officials breathed a quiet sigh of relief for another reason: The image of an aged and feeble Pinochet badgered by aggressive prosecutors might have generated a public relations backlash.

Notwithstanding Pinochet's return, the reverberations from his arrest have shaken his native Chile and circled the globe. At home Pinochet faces more than 100 individual criminal and civil complaints; and in a stunning decision in late May, a Chilean appeals court lifted the ex-dictator's immunity, which the general himself had crafted as a condition for leaving power. These steps have unsettled the nation's military brass, which recently gathered for a none-too-subtle meeting to discuss developments. Internationally, as well, the human rights community is moving aggressively to expand the Pinochet precedent. Pinochet's triumphal return, it is becoming clear, was by no means the end of the story. And some of the next chapters are being written in distant parts of the globe.


As soon as Pinochet was detained in London, human rights activists and victims scanned the horizon for other ex-dictators who might be brought to justice. There was no shortage of candidates. Dictators fleeing coups, wars, or popular uprisings have made a tradition of seeking refuge in other countries. Former Haitian strongman Jean-Claude Duvalier retired to the south of France; onetime Ugandan dictator Idi Amin absconded to Saudi Arabia; and Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam ended up in Zimbabwe after his ouster. Often the state treasuries of the nations they ruled have funded the dictators' retirement. The problem for those seeking to expand the Pinochet precedent was that the governments hosting these erstwhile strongmen often showed little inclination to follow Britain's or Spain's lead. When asked to try Idi Amin, Saudi Arabia pleaded "Bedouin hospitality." Last year South Africa fumbled an opportunity to seize Mengistu when he traveled there for medical treatment. But at least one former dictator was found who presented a more promising target.

It was early last year that Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch and Peter Rosenblum, the associate director of Harvard Law School's human rights program, began discussing another splendidly retired, but substantially more vulnerable, ex-dictator: Hissene Habre of Chad. …

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