Latin 'untouchables' face heat

This week, Chile's Supreme Court is hearing appeals to an immunity law that has shielded the military from prosecution.

In recent months, Latin America has made significant progress in the struggle to redress the human rights abuses committed during the dictatorships of the 1970s and '80s, say experts.

Chile is the latest domino, as its Supreme Court began hearings this week in a historic appeal of an amnesty law decreed by the country's one-time strongman, former Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The 1978 decree has shielded military and police from prosecution for murders or torture committed during the worst years of repression after Mr. Pinochet's 1973 coup. An estimated 3,200 Chileans were killed, or disappeared after being detained, in a widespread campaign to root out Pinochet's opposition.

Pinochet has long been seen as an untouchable in Chile. But in 1998, a Spanish judge used international instruments to argue for Pinochet's extradition from London. He was eventually returned to Chile though he has yet to stand trial, in part because of his deteriorating health.

Roberto Garretón, regional representative for Latin America for the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, says Pinochet's arrest in London was nevertheless a watershed.

"That arrest had a fantastic effect," he says. "This was unthinkable 20 years ago, but in Chile, there are now 300 military officials with cases pending a resolution of the amnesty appeal, which should happen any day now." Mr. Garretón says it was a breakthrough not only for judges in Chile, but across the region.

"There is evidence of a consolidated advance across the region," he says. "If we win the amnesty appeal in Chile, it will widen a door that has been opened by the decision in Argentina."

Two weeks ago, Argentina's Supreme Court rejected its own amnesty. The court declared that crimes against humanity can never be prescribed. "It's an important precedent for the region," says Francisco Bravo, one of the lawyers leading Chile's amnesty appeal. "It's hard to tell what impact it will have here, since our court is pretty guarded in its jurisprudence. We'll soon see what signal it will send."

The advances in Chilean and Argentine courts have mirrored developments elsewhere. In Mexico, a special prosecutor filed charges against former Mexican President Luis Echeverría and 11 other officials in July. The charges were in connection with the 1971 "Corpus Christi massacre," in which police and paramilitary forces are alleged to have killed at least 30 student protesters in Mexico City.

In Paraguay last October, a judicial order was reissued for the arrest of the former President Alfredo Stroessner, in exile in Brazil, and former Interior Minister Sabino Augusto Montanaro, in exile in Honduras, to face charges for their alleged involvement in the torture and killing of Celestina Pérez in 1974, while in police detention. A law was also passed last year creating a Truth and Justice Commission to examine human rights violations under the Stroessner government - a commission that has yet to be established.

And Peru's Truth and Justice Commission completed an exhaustive three-year investigation in 2003, concluding that between 1980 and 2000, Peru experienced its longest and worst period of political repression since independence, claiming almost 70,000 victims.

Still, there are several countries where there have been few, if any, advances in dealing with abuses of the past. Garretón cites many Central American nations where, like much of Latin America during the past few decades, atrocities were committed as communism and democracy battled it out during the cold war.

But Garretón has hope for the Chilean process, particularly in a parallel investigation concerning Pinochet himself.

In May, an unexpected decision by the Santiago Court of Appeals stripped Pinochet of his legal immunity. Many suspected the Supreme Court would overturn that decision, as it has in the past. But last month the Supreme Court ratified it, in a 9-8 ruling, meaning the 88-year-old will now face questioning.

Pinochet's interrogation has already been postponed twice, so the families of the dead and disappeared are watching with a cautious optimism. "The first time Pinochet was stripped of his immunity, we thought we'd get justice," says Victoria Saavedra, who lost her brother in 1975. "That's why this time, we don't want to have any illusions."

There's fear here that Pinochet will elude justice again. But with the current crescendo of legal actions at home and abroad, experts say it's closer than ever for him - and many of the region's "untouchables." As Sergio Laurenti, director of Amnesty International in Chile, puts it: "Justice, particularly in this part of the world, is very slow, but it has a very long arm."

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