Chile's delicate dance around Pinochet prosecution

The Supreme Court Tuesday ordered evaluation of the aging ex-leader, before questioning can proceed.

Efforts to bring former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to trial for kidnapping and murder at times resemble a tango through a thicket of thorns: determined steps forward; then back; snags, scratches, a whirl of activity.

The judges overseeing the case seem to be pushing the case forward as quickly as prudence allows. A determination on whether the former strongman will be charged officially could come in January.

"The courts seem a little bit worn down by the length of the process," says Emilio Meneses, a political science professor at Catholic University in the capital, Santiago. "They seem to have decided that there has to be a final conclusion, clarification for everybody as to whether there is going to be a trial."

The case has bitterly divided Chile. Mr. Pinochet's ardent supporters stage vocal rallies, declaring he saved the country by overthrowing elected Marxist President Salvador Allende in a 1973 military coup.

Families and friends of those executed or "disappeared" during 17 years of military rule are equally vocal in their demands for justice. Political violence claimed some 3,200 lives, according to a government report completed shortly after Pinochet stepped down in 1990.

Chile's Supreme Court stripped Pinochet of his immunity as a senator-for-life in August, paving the way for legal action. The decision came five months after his return from London, where Pinochet spent 503 days under house arrest as British authorities processed a Spanish extradition request. The request was dismissed on grounds of ill health.

Mr. Meneses says Chile is in "political limbo" - though not crisis - as the matter winds through its courts. Fallout has "contaminated many aspects of political life," he says, causing, for instance, the postponement of efforts to reform the Defense Ministry and clouding roundtable talks between human rights activists and the armed forces. The two sides are supposed to conclude an investigation Jan. 6 into the estimated 1,000 people still missing, and presumed killed. But cooperation might have suffered with Pinochet under indictment, and failure of the talks would mean political embarrassment for Socialist President Ricardo Lagos.

The latest steps in the legal dance occurred Tuesday, when Chile's Supreme Court ruled that psychiatric and physical examinations of the ailing former strongman, now in his mid-80s, must precede any interrogation. The decision reversed a ruling last week and came one day before a special magistrate was to have questioned Pinochet. Chilean law requires exams, and interrogation, before a suspect may be charged. Pinochet's defense team says the exams will show he is unfit to be questioned, let alone tried.

Still, the top court said the exams, as well as any questioning, must be completed by mid-January. That means, theoretically, that Pinochet could be officially charged by next month, exempted from trial, or both, attorneys and observers say.

"The Supreme Court and the government want an end to the case," says Ricardo Israel. "That would mean less problems for them." He predicts likely charges against Pinochet and even house arrest, but subsequent exemption from trial due to incapacity.

The former strongman is being investigated in the abduction and execution of at least 72 people in late September and early October, 1973, by a traveling military tribunal known as the "caravan of death." Attorneys representing families of the victims say Pinochet gave orders for the caravan.

Activists across the political spectrum say they want a speedy resolution. "I think people are tired of this," says Leonora Gajardo of the pro-Pinochet National Sovereign Command. "There's a lot of bitterness on both sides and it's time to think about the future."

Hiram Villagra, one of the attorneys seeking Pinochet's prosecution, says plaintiffs won't contest Tuesday's decision or try in any way to slow the process.

"For better or worse, it has to come to an end," says Meneses.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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