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 a Pinochet."

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 full-fledged democracy.

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 Iyrics.

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 Examined."

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 and discussion.


Roger Rurbach is with the Center for the Study of the Americas.

International War Crimes