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