Chile's new regime weighs Pinochet impunity

On Saturday, Ricardo Lagos was inaugurated as president, pledging to stem military power and privilege.

Augusto Pinochet shuffles around the garden outside his vacation home on the coast - temporarily sheltered from the maelstrom he's whipped up in the outside world. But the former Chilean ruler can take solace in one unalterable fact. No matter how loudly human rights groups abroad and at home howl, the wheels of justice in Chile turn at a geologic pace.

On March 3, Mr. Pinochet returned here from London, where he had been detained 503 days for human rights abuses. Released on grounds of mental and physical infirmity, the general stunned onlookers at the Santiago airport when he rose from his wheelchair and waved to the crowds. Some alleged that this recovery la Lazarus, showed he had been faking his maladies previously.

How Chile handles the frail octogenarian's case will be a test of whether the nation, and the nascent presidency of Ricardo Lagos, are capable of facing and putting to rest its horrific past.

Pinochet is charged with endorsing the torture, kidnapping, and murder of thousands of Chileans. During his regime spanning 1973 to 1990, at least 3,197 people died or were detained and later disappeared without a trace. By this weekend, 71 cases had been filed against him - some representing dozens and even several hundred individuals still considered missing. Judge Juan Guzmn would like to bring the general in for questioning.

But there's a problem.

Prosecutors must first strip Pinochet of his immunity as a permanent member of the Senate - a comfortable post he arranged for himself. If that attempt is successful, Mr. Guzmn must then convince the appeals court of Pinochet's guilt before initiating an investigation. However, the Chilean Supreme Court - many of whose magistrates were named under Pinochet - can eventually overrule that decision.

"I don't have the slightest doubt in my mind that Pinochet will never be tried in Chile, and 99 percent of Chileans realize this," says Santiago human rights attorney Hector Salazar. "But that doesn't mean we won't pursue every avenue possible to bring Pinochet to justice."

That road will be rocky, and long.

If in fact the immunity is removed, Mr. Salazar says investigations alone - never mind a trial - could take up to five years.

But for opponents of Pinochet, there is hope that impunity can be avoided.

Currently, more than 70 armed-forces officers, police, and secret agents face their own trials in cases marching their way through Chile's snail-paced judicial system. Of these, 47 were military officers under Pinochet's regime. Some of the accused were involved in the "Caravan of Death," when political prisoners were summarily executed during a post-coup assault on prison camps. The men are being tried for kidnapping - a crime not covered by their military amnesty.

But at the same time, a bipartisan bill now in congress would give lifetime senators - Pinochet and, should they exercise the option, former President Patricio Aylwin and outgoing President Eduardo Frei - the choice to step down voluntarily with full benefits, pension, and immunity. If passed, the door would be open for the general to gracefully exit politics.

Much to the chagrin of the political left, President Lagos has sidestepped the Pinochet dilemma. Rather, the first Socialist president since Pinochet's brutal coup removed Salvador Allende from power in 1973 is seen as currying plum relations with business leaders. In a democracy, Lagos told reporters last week, justice should be left to the courts.

Mr. Frei, meanwhile, has asked Chileans to remain calm during what is expected to be a long and complicated legal battle.

"Ricardo Lagos has said that Pinochet should be judged in Chile, not abroad," says Communist Party chief Gladys Marn. "Now he must keep that promise."

But the presence of black-bereted Army commandos, toting machine guns at Pinochet's welcome-home reception has many concerned about the prospects for justice.

That heavily armed squad sent a message, says Viviana Daz, president of the Group of Families of the Detained and Disappeared, in Santiago. "Sure, a small group of businessmen really run this country, but the military is not beyond a show of force, and that's what this was," says Viviana Daz, whose own father was tortured and later disappeared in 1976.

Ms. Daz has no regrets now, even with Pinochet back in Chile rather than awaiting Spanish justice. "If we hadn't organized and fought day after day for the last 20 years, nobody now would even be talking about the disappeared," she remarks.

Cynicism runs high regarding the prospects of a trial. Unemployed construction worker Mauricio Fuentes says he doubts there will be much headway anytime soon. "They should try him," says Mr. Fuentes. "He should pay for what he did. But I really doubt anyone has the nerve."

The prevailing Chilean sentiment, however, is ambivalence about Pinochet.

Take the very divided opinion of Lorena Quesada, a young executive whose family includes active members of the military on one side - and exiled dissidents on the other. Although she feels Pinochet should be tried, she says it will never happen. Instead, she believes the courts should be concentrating on cases that can be resolved, like the mysterious November disappearance of forestry student Jorge Matute in Concepcin.

Lack of progress on the Matute case has frustrated many here. With police investigators keeping mum and an arrest looking far away, many bemoan judicial incompetence in day-to-day proceedings.

"Whether they try Pinochet or not, there is no justice in Chile anyway," Ms. Quesada shrugs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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