Though a judge's decision Monday to formally try former dictator Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses is far from final, the drawn-out legal proceedings and new efforts to discover what happened to those who disappeared during his regime are helping Chile confront the past.
The developments also underscore the longer and more painstaking process Chile is undertaking to address its dark past, as compared with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay - South American neighbors also governed by military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s.
Viviana Diaz, who heads a group uniting families of Pinochet-era victims, called Monday's ruling the "most important gain" of her organization's efforts.
The current sense of victory she feels may be short-lived, however. Ricardo Israel, head of the University of Chile's Political Science Institute, says he believes the Supreme Court may eventually rule that Pinochet is unfit to face trial because of frail health.
Nonetheless, Mr. Israel says Chile has already advanced further in addressing human rights issues related to its former military dictatorship than Latin American neighbors Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Israel notes that a presidential pardon in Argentina - where an estimated 30,000 died or went missing during the 1976-1984 dictatorship - freed top military leaders from jail time and that an amnesty law covered lower-level military officials. Uruguayans decided in a plebiscite not to try any of their former military leaders on charges related to abuses, Israel notes, although a "Commission for Peace" was recently formed, marking the first official government effort to investigate the disappearances of some 170 Uruguayans. In Brazil there have not been trials related to rights abuses, Israel says.
Chile, ruled by Pinochet from 1973-1990, approved an amnesty law in 1978 covering most of the political violence from 1973-1978, but Israel notes that several trials stemming from later alleged abuses are winding their way through the courts.
"The process was delayed for a long time, but we continue to make advances, more than was expected," Israel says. The impetus for these trials, he adds, was the 1998 detention in London of Pinochet on a warrant issued by a Spanish judge seeking to try him on rights abuse charges. British authorities determined that Pinochet was mentally unfit to face trial and let him return to Chile last year after 503 days of house arrest.
Patricio Gajardo, a University of Chile political scientist, says recent developments in the Pinochet case "will help with reconciliation. To reconcile, first you have to recognize what happened, the errors."
"There's no sector now that can argue there weren't human rights violations (during the Pinochet years) - and, before, that was maintained and believed by some," Mr. Gajardo says.
"Did innocent people die? Yes. Were there abuses? Probably," says Leonora Gajardo of National Sovereign Command, a pro-Pinochet group.
Early January disclosures by the armed forces about the fate of 200 regime foes - many dumped into the Pacific Ocean - leave no doubt about the atrocities that occurred during Pinochet's reign, says Jessica Tapia, a law student whose father, a labor leader, disappeared early on in the dictatorship. "People have to swallow the hard reality," Ms. Tapia says.
On Monday Judge Juan Guzman, capping a three-year investigation of Pinochet, decided to officially charge the former strongman with the murders of 57 opponents of his regime and the kidnappings of 18 more. He also ordered Pinochet to be placed under house arrest. As of Tuesday morning, however, the arrest order was unenforced.
The 75 killings and abductions were carried out in October 1973 by a military tribunal that tracked down and executing dissidents. Pinochet allegedly directed the tribunal, though he has denied ordering any killings. His lawyers say they will appeal the Guzman decision.
Some 3,200 people died or went missing during the Pinochet years, according to a 1991 government report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society