SANTIAGO, CHILE — Yesterday, Chile's Supreme Court announced its decision to strip former dictator Augusto Pinochet of his senatorial immunity.
By a 14-to-6 margin, the tribunal voted to remove his indemnity against prosecution for human rights violations. It is still unclear whether Mr. Pinochet will ever face trial for any of 150 potential lawsuits, including one linked to a military squad that executed 72 dissidents. But many of Pinochet's harshest critics say the loss of immunity alone is something to celebrate - and may be enough for Chile to reconcile its past.
"The removal of the General's immunity is extraordinary and it means the country has gone a long way" says Ral Sohr, a political and military analyst. "The loss of Pinochet's immunity is a judgment by itself."
Sebastian Brett, director of Latin America Human Rights Watch agrees: "This is the most important decision in Chilean judicial history. Even if he's not convicted, the democratic principle that no one is above justice has been settled, and that's ... important for Chile's future."
Pinochet came to power in 1973 after orchestrating a bloody coup against Socialist President Salvador Allende. During the next 19 years of his iron-fisted rule, more than 3,000 people were murdered or disappeared, and an estimated 400,000 were tortured.
But even if Pinochet is formally accused of any of these crimes, analysts say it is highly unlikely that he will ever face jail time, given the octogenarian's medical condition. According to Chilean law , everyone older than 70 must be given medical tests to determine if he is fit to stand trial. After a 16-month detention in London at the behest of a Spanish prosecutor, he was declared unfit to stand trial and sent home in March.
While observers realize conviction is unlikely and that the ruling falls short of justice, most acknowledge Pinochet's immunity is the best they can hope for. But Pinochet supporters say the detractors need to get beyond past deeds.
"Unfortunately the desire to stay stuck in the past is stronger than the desire to look towards the future," says Jun Antonio Coloma of the far-right Independent Democratic Union.
Meanwhile, the next generation is already moving past the old wounds. Says teenager Camila Santibaez: "I don't care about Pinochet or his situation. I belong to another era."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society