Quiet Retirement for Most Ex-despots

Some live in luxury in exile, some return to politics. Few forced to pay for atrocities

Like Alfredo Stroessner, some live out their years in quiet exile, enjoying their fortunes. Others, such as Idi Amin, depend on their hosts' benevolence or scrape by in penurious obscurity, like Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

And a few, including Hugo Banzer, have even returned to public office, elected by voters who accept their declarations of remorse and transformations into democrats.

Yet whatever their fates, most of the men who have presided over some of the world's most brutal regimes of the last 30 years share one thing in common: very rarely have any been brought to justice for the murders, abductions, torture, and other abuses perpetrated at their behest.

"Most of them have been able to escape trial and prosecution for atrocities in which they have been involved," says Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. "This is a kind of pattern."

That pattern may again hold true as Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, battles extradition from Britain to Spain to face charges of genocide, terrorism, and torture. General Pinochet, during whose 1973-90 rule more than 3,000 people died or disappeared, won a major victory last week when Britain's High Court found that he had immunity from prosecution as a former head of state.

This week, lawyers for Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who is seeking Pinochet's extradition, are appealing the decision to a panel from the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament.

African leader convicted

There are, of course, exceptions to the trend. Consider Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a former colonel who seized power in 1965 in the Central African Republic and eventually proclaimed himself emperor. He was ousted by a military intervention by France in 1979, which cited his abuses, including the alleged cannibalism of children.

Colonel Bokassa lived in exile in Ivory Coast, but returned to his homeland to face trial in 1986.

He was convicted on a variety of charges - but not cannibalism - and served seven years in jail before he was pardoned. He died in 1996.

Then there were South Korea's former military rulers, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, who were put on trial in 1996 for seizing power in a 1979 coup and overseeing a crackdown on opposition protesters the following year in the southern city of Kwangju in which 200 people died.

The former generals were convicted, with Mr. Chun receiving a death sentence. But in a bid to promote national reconciliation amid economic and political turmoil, President-elect Kim Dae-Jung initiated amnesty for them in 1997. Ironically, their regime had sentenced Mr. Kim to death 17 years earlier for his dissident activities.

But for the most part, despots and their henchmen evade justice. A prime reason is the reluctance of their democratic successors to prosecute them. Indeed, Chile has demanded that Britain free Pinochet, arguing that as a member of the Chilean Parliament, he had legislative immunity.

Why most evade justice

Such decisions are often rooted in a profound fear that putting former military rulers on trial could provoke a backlash by the armed forces, experts say. "The armed forces generally retain relevant levels of local power," says Mr. Vivanco. "It becomes a challenge for the new democratically elected authorities to promote credible and independent judicial investigations."

Instead, civilian governments prefer to consolidate their nascent democracies and promote national reconciliation through nonjudicial truth commissions that give former despots and their acolytes amnesty in return for admission of misdeeds. But such efforts often prove inconclusive.

A Chilean panel that examined the Pinochet era failed to name anyone who committed abuses; the South African truth commission's final report on apartheid rule was issued last week amid recriminations and blame-shifting.

There have been instances in which despots escape prosecution because of reputations as cold war crusaders who were compelled to take extreme steps to foil the spread of Soviet-sponsored communism.

Speaking in a Monitor interview before his 1997 election as Bolivia's president, Mr. Banzer said he felt no remorse for the measures he used to crush a leftist insurgency as military dictator from 1971 to 1978.

"There was chaos, anarchy and a guerrilla movement. Authoritarian rule was the only solution," said President Banzer. During his previous incarnation, hundreds of opponents were killed and thousands jailed and exiled. Now, he is a populist proponent of democracy and economic reform.

Some former tyrants escape trial as a matter of political expediency.

Under a deal arranged in 1994 by the United States to restore democracy in Haiti, the country's military rulers were given amnesty and allowed to depart into exile, where they live with their ill-gotten wealth. Panama this year rejected an extradition request from Haiti for Raoul Cedras, the former junta chief.

Life in exile

Paraguay's former military dictator, General Stroessner, was given refuge by Brazil after he was deposed in a 1989 coup. Now living in a mansion in Braslia, Stroessner harbored fugitive Nazis and hundreds of people were killed and tortured during his 35 years in power.

General Amin is a guest of Saudi Arabia, living in the city of Jeddah since 1980. There, the man who listed Hitler as a role model can be seen cruising the streets in his white Chevrolet. He took power in a 1971 coup in Uganda and presided over a regime that allegedly slaughtered tens of thousands of opponents.

Mr. Duvalier is reportedly living in penury in France, which provided him refuge after he fled his native Haiti with millions of dollars of his nation's money.

Duvalier ruled his impoverished Caribbean country for 15 years, backed by thugs known as the "Tontons Macoutes," who allegedly butchered and tortured countless people on his behalf.

As his fortune shrank, Duvalier's wife left him and he was evicted from a luxury villa in 1994 for failing to pay rent.

This year saw the death from natural causes of one of the 20th century's bloodiest despots, former Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot of Cambodia.

Though perhaps there was poetic justice in that he died in a squalid jungle shack while a prisoner of onetime followers, he never faced formal trial for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians during a 1975-79 reign of terror.

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