Pinochet's Trial and Tribulations
by Roger Burbach
Z magazine, May 2000
The return of Augusto Pinochet to Chile has sparked a broad
movement to bring the former dictator to trial. Ricardo Lagos,
the newly installed socialist president, in his first public address
from the balcony of the presidential palace, proclaimed that Chileans
"would always remember the traitors who bombed the palace"
on September 11, 1973, leading to the death of the last Socialist
president, Salvador Allende, and Pinochet's assumption of power.
This came as the packed plaza in front of Lagos chanted "Juicio
Along with the clamor for Pinochet's prosecution, there is
also a drive to revitalize Chile's civic and governmental institutions.
The day after his inauguration Lagos declared to an even larger
anti-Pinochet gathering that the "authoritarian enclaves"
of Chile's constitution must be removed, and that he intends to
complete the "transition" from the dictatorship to a
Pinochet's return to Chile on March 3 stirred intense public
antipathy. Released by the British government for health reasons,
including dementia and impaired physical mobility, his ailments
seemingly disappeared as he got off the plane. He rejected the
use of a wheel chair and walked across the tarmac, waving his
crutch in the air to the delegation of assembled loyalists who
had come to greet him. After a brief physical exam, he retired
to his country estate, south of Santiago. The departing government
of Eduardo Frei was incensed, telling the military that there
should be no further public episodes or appearances by the dictator
and that he should stay away from the inauguration festivities.
During the presidential campaign, Lagos as well as his right-wing
opponent, Joaquin Lavin, largely ignored the issue of Pinochet,
calling only for his return to Chile. They both insisted that
only Chileans had the right to try Pinochet for his crimes, although
few thought he would ever stand trial at home because of immunity
laws and a legal system Pinochet had put in place before he left
office in 1990. Lagos's position reflected that of the center-left
coalition government of Eduardo Frei which did not want to offend
a military that still exercised considerable power in Chile.
However, during Pinochet's detention in London, Chilean society
underwent a transformation. As Elias Padilla, a university sociologist
and a former president of Amnesty International in Chile notes:
"We finally felt free to discuss and say things that were
considered taboo even after years of civilian rule. It was as
if an oppressive shroud had been lifted from the country."
Human rights groups were emboldened to move against high ranking
officers of the Pinochet regime. Before leaving office Pinochet
had implemented an amnesty decree covering acts of torture or
executions from 1973-1978, the years when the bulk of the human
rights violations occurred. But the courts found a loophole in
the cases of over a thousand "disappeared" victims whose
bodies have never been found. The legal argument, which the country's
Supreme Court upheld, is that these cases were not covered by
the amnesty decree because they constitute ongoing crimes that
have not been resolved.
Lagos in his early days in office made few comments on the
prosecution of Pinochet, saying that, "the judicial process
must take its course" and that the executive branch will
not interfere. However, as Lagos is aware, no judicial system
functions in a vacuum. Pinochet is easily the most despised figure
in Chile with polls showing that upwards of 70 percent want to
see him stand trial. Jose Bengoa, the rector of a private university
in Santiago and a noted political analyst, states: "Failure
to prosecute Pinochet would impair the integrity of the court
system and the justices who are trying to demonstrate that they
are no longer the pawns of Pinochet. "
On March 18 more than 50,000 people attended a concert at
Santiago's soccer stadium to raise funds for a memorial center
dedicated to the victims of the Pinochet regime. The crowd was
comprised overwhelmingly of people in their teens and twenties
who chanted and jeered at every mention of the name of Pinochet.
Also in attendance were a number of high ranking ministers of
the Lagos government who appeared to enjoy the gathering as much
as the youth, sometimes rising to chant and even dance to anti-Pinochet
Viviena Diaz, the president of the Organization of the Families
of the Detained and Disappeared that convened the concert, made
it clear that many Chileans are intent on building a new Chile
that goes beyond the prosecution of Pinochet. "We want health
care, education, work, housing, justice, and human rights"
she proclaimed. "We will support the Lagos government when
it is implementing these rights, we will criticize when it doesn't."
Lagos has already taken steps to revitalize the social infrastructure
gutted by Pinochet. The public health system, which is a shambles,
is a priority for Lagos. He has promised to end the lines of people
seeking emergency treatment at the public medical centers and
hospitals. He has also ordered the military to send its doctors
to work in the clinics.
New labor legislation will mean that for the first time since
Allende's administration meaningful unemployment compensation
will be paid to workers. At present some of the unemployed receive
the meager sum of $36 per month from the municipal governments
if they correctly fill out all the forms and wait in interminable
lines. Once Congress passes the new legislation, unemployed workers
will receive 80 percent of their salaried income.
Education is also a top priority for Lagos who was Minister
of Education in the previous government. He has stated that every
Chilean regardless of income should receive a free education.
In his address at the Belles Artes museum, Lagos declared that
culture is also a priority. The country's rich tradition of poetry,
music, literature, and community theater was decimated by the
Pinochet regime as many of the country's artists were exiled,
imprisoned or killed.
The prosecution of Pinochet, however, is at the center of
the efforts to revitalize Chilean society and democracy. Over
70 charges against Pinochet have already been presented in the
Chilean courts, and the list grows daily. The Belgium government,
which along with Spain was also seeking the extradition of Pinochet
from London, is now pressing its 19 counts against Pinochet in
the Chilean courts.
Even the U.S. justice department is involved. Attorney General
Janet Reno was the highest ranking official to attend Lagos's
inauguration, and after her departure the Chilean Supreme Court
approved her request for the deposition of more than 40 Chileans
in relation to the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronnie
Moffit in Washington, DC in 1975 by Chilean secret police. All
were high ranking military and civilian officials in the early
years of the Pinochet regime. Prosecutions concerning the Letelier
case are specifically exempted from the amnesty decrees due to
earlier pressures from the U.S. government. The head of the Chilean
secret police, Manuel Contreras, is already in prison for his
role in the Letelier assassination.
Pinochet currently enjoys immunity from prosecution because
he is Senator for Life, a position he created for himself after
he stepped down as head of the military. The courts, however,
can lift this immunity if serious crimes are involved, and it
is widely believed that they will do so. After this Pinochet will
be prosecuted case by case. The first case that will be brought
against Pinochet revolves around the Caravan of Death in October
1973. With Pinochet's official authorization, General Arrellano
Stark headed up a special military expedition that traveled around
the country, carrying out at least 79 summary executions. In some
instances local military officials were castigated for having
been too lenient with prisoners that Stark ordered executed. Pinochet
received daily reports of the actions of the Caravan. Stark is
now under house arrest and is being tried, specifically for the
19 of the 79 whose bodies have never been located.
Pinochet's lawyers appear to believe that he will be indicted
and have openly stated that their main legal defense will be that
Pinochet's deteriorating mental and physical health make it impossible
for him to stand trail. However, Chilean law is stricter than
that of Great Britain, only allowing a defendant to avoid trial
if he is insane, or mentally incoherent and incompetent. To help
advance this defense, Pinochet is not attending sessions of the
Chilean Senate, allegedly for "health reasons," and
his family and close associates do not allow him to talk to the
press. Every few days Pinochet's associates or the military leak
information to the media of his deteriorating health. In one case
a local tabloid's headlines proclaimed, "Pinochet's Brain
It is impossible to predict the exact course of the legal
process in Chile. It will drag on for months if not years. But
the length of the process will help rather than hinder those who
want to "de-Pinochetize" Chile . Every court decision
will provoke a public response, with demonstrations and statements
by public officials. It also means that Pinochet's life will not
be an easy one, as he and his lawyers are dragged through the
courts and his specific crimes are the subject of endless debate
Roger Rurbach is with the Center for the Study of the Americas.
International War Crimes