Chile's moves to reconcile its tortured past

A court ordered Augusto Pinochet's arrest on Friday, but now the judge is being pursued by foes.

The roller-coaster ride of pursuing justice for Augusto Pinochet has hit another dip. Now, calls are mounting for the judge shepherding the murder and kidnapping case against the former dictator to step down.

Judge Juan Guzman, who is investigating the general's role in an operation during the early days of his 1973 - 1990 regime against foes of the military government, has been accused of political bias and impulsiveness by Mr. Pinochet's right-wing supporters. The Santiago Court of Appeals was expected to begin deliberations on his removal by today.

Friday, Mr. Guzman ordered Pinochet's house arrest for his connection with 19 disappearances and 54 deaths, taking observers of all stripes by surprise.

Analysts say these consecutive moves represent one step forward and one step back for a frustrated country struggling to reconcile its tortured past. Some say it is no longer just the society that is fractured, but also the judiciary.

Nonetheless, "the judiciary has attained a degree of independence with relation to the other powers of state, generating a more complex atmosphere with relation to human rights issues," says University of Chile political scientist Guillermo Holzmann. "Whereas Pinochet's future had been an implicit bargaining point in previous political discussions, Guzman's action now makes that more difficult, if not impossible."

Whatever the case, Alfredo Rehren, head of the Political Science Institute at the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago, said quick resolution isn't likely, given the many legal recourses at each side's disposal. "Next would come the trial, examination of proof and background material," he says. "The process is just starting."

Dr. Rehren predicts the nation's Supreme Court will ultimately replace Guzman to lower the profile of the controversial case. In the meantime, Pinochet remained free, accepting visits over the weekend from family and friends.

Pinochet led Chile with an iron fist after ousting Marxist President Salvador Allende in a Sept. 11, 1973, coup. Supporters point to the economic order and growth he brought the nation. But human rights officials say his regime unjustly pursued thousands of leftist foes. In all, some 3,200 people died or disappeared owing to political violence during Pinochet's 17 years in power.

Guzman is the first judge ever to say there is enough proof to try the strongman for atrocities.

Guzman's supporters hailed his move to arrest Pinochet as a significant advance in efforts to prosecute the ex-dictator for abuses of his regime and said it shows that the Chilean justice system is capable of independent action.

"I didn't believe in the Chilean justice system," says Marta Elena Gongoro whose husband Jose Rosas Devia, a union leader, was detained and killed on Sept. 17, 1973, at the hands of Pinochet forces. "But now I do, just a little bit."

Pinochet supporters, meanwhile, blast Guzman, saying he hurried the decision owing to talk that he could be taken off the case because of a letter he wrote expressing support for an independent government prosecutor that has called for legal proceedings against Pinochet.

"This man is acting too quickly," says Leonora Gajardo, a member of the pro-Pinochet National Sovereign Command, said of the judge. "He wants to be the Chilean [Baltasar] Garzon and go down in history," he says referring to the Spanish judge who called for Pinochet's extradition from London in 1998. They say the ailing Pinochet should have had a series of medical exams first and that Guzman also should have questioned the former strongman in the case first - a normal procedure in Chilean court proceedings.

At any rate, Rehren, the political scientist, says Chilean society isn't likely to deteriorate into extreme partisan squabbling over the recent developments. "I don't see a crisis," he says. "The judiciary is just being more dynamic, more independent."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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