Chile takes tough steps to heal Pinochet-era wounds

The general's hopes to escape trial because of infirmity were dashed in court Tuesday.

A decade after Gen. Augosto Pinochet's dictatorship ended, Chile is edging closer toward coming to terms with its totalitarian past.

The nation's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against Pinochet's petition for a medical exam, removing the possibility that he could plead ill health to escape prosecution on human rights charges.

"Reconciliation between Chileans will only be possible if Pinochet's immunity is removed," said prosecutor Eduardo Contreras a few days before the decision. "Society heals when justice prevails."

The issue of Pinochet and how to redress the human rights violations committed during his 17-year rule has caused deep division within Chilean society. Some Chileans, particularly those whose loved ones were among the 3,000 who went missing or were killed during his regime, are pushing for truth and justice, but others say the country can recover only through reconciliation.

"What kind of country are we leaving to the future generations if Pinochet is not put on trial for his crimes?" says Edita Carcamo, awaiting the court decision with a black-and-white picture of her still-missing husband pinned to her chest.

But, a Pinochet supporter nearby, farmer Manuel Tello, warns of vengefulness. "In this country there is a tremendous hatred, and there will never be reconciliation," he says. "This is going to continue forever."

By the end of the month, the Supreme Court will decide whether to strip Pinochet, now a senator for life, of his immunity from prosecution, says Supreme Court president Hernan Alvarez. If Pinochet's immunity were removed, some 150 cases could be brought against him, including one involving the "caravan of death," when a military squad executed 72 dissidents.

That Pinochet, an octogenarian, is facing possible prosecution at home is evidence of a changed official attitude in Chile. Several key members of the former secret police, the CNI, once considered untouchable, were recently tried and sentenced to life in prison. And institutions which traditionally have stonewalled investigation into the Pinochet regime have become less pugnacious.

"It is useless to appeal if the court decision turns out to be unfavorable," says Pablo Longueira, president of the far-right-wing Independent Democratic Union party (UDI), which gained clout under the dictator. The embattled former commander in chief is finding little sympathy from the current Army commander, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, who has been visible alongside newly elected Socialist President Ricardo Lagos in official activities.

Recently, representatives of armed forces and human rights groups signed an agreement which secures the military's cooperation in determining the fate of more than 1,000 people who disappeared during Pinochet's 1973-1990 tenure. But even that falls short, says Viviana Diaz, president of the Families of the Detained or Disappeared. Those who provide information will remain anonymous.

"This outcome has generated enormous feelings of frustration in our families," Ms. Diaz says. "We have members so affected by this never-ending pain, who have suffered strokes and even ... tried to commit suicide."

Recent polls have consistently shown that a majority of Chileans expect Pinochet to be put through the rigors of a trial. This is undoubtedly a sobering view for the former dictator, who declared in a 1990 speech: "Nobody touches me. The day one of my men is touched, the state of law is over."

As the nation's eyes turn toward the court's next decision, Mr. Lagos has stressed that, no matter the outcome, Chile will remain on its course of democratic transition begun in 1990.

"Whatever the decision by the Supreme Court regarding his immunity, Pinochet will no longer return to the Senate and will have to go home," says Oscar Godoy, a political scientist with the conservative Political Studies Center (CEP). "Therefore, the final outcome will be the same: Pinochet disappears from public life, and Chileans will go on living and working as usual, dealing with unemployment, the cost of living, health and education."

Sebastian Brett, director of Latin America Human Rights Watch, was more adamant about what the outcome should be . "If Pinochet's immunity is not revoked, the divisions between the Chilean people will increase, and a great number will be disappointed." But he then added: "We only ask that the judges be good judges, to fulfill their duty according to the law. Above all, if the people see the ruling as a fair one, it will be accepted."

Pinochet wears a pacemaker and is being treated for diabetes. He had three strokes in London, where he was detained under house arrest for more than a year on a warrant by a Spanish judge attempting to try him for human rights abuses. The former dictator was released in March after doctors said he was mentally and physically unable to stand trial.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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