In Chile, pace of justice quickens

First a Chilean court stripped immunity from leaders of the country's 17-year "dirty war" last month. Then the government released a report on state-sponsored torture committed during the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, with President Ricardo Lagos promising compensation for the victims. Now a judge has ruled that Mr. Pinochet, after years of avoiding justice, be placed under house arrest and stand trial for his alleged involvement in the abuses.

The ruling reversed two earlier Chilean court decisions to exempt Pinochet from trial on health grounds and upheld a lower court decision to strip him of immunity from prosecution, which is granted to former presidents in Chile. It is, say prosecution lawyers, the most important in a series of legal defeats for the former general, which will serve as a precedent for other pending human rights cases in the country.

"We now expect other indictments will follow," attorney Eduardo Contreras told reporters.

After years of slow-motion justice, the string of high-profile moves underscores a new willingness by Chilean society to look straight at, and deal decisively with, its dark past. "The mood in Chile is changing," says Sebastian Brett, Human Rights Watch's representative in Chile. "The polarization over the military government, which took place for the first five years of transition [into democratic government], has shifted."

On Monday Judge Juan Gúzman pronounced the 89-year-old Pinochet mentally competent to stand trial for human rights abuses that took place during his regime. This came after years of international arrest warrants, exemptions for ill health, and dismissals of charges. "It was not difficult," Mr. Gúzman said of his decision.

During Pinochet's rule, an estimated 3,000 political opponents were killed or disappeared, and thousands more were tortured or driven into exile. Pinochet is now charged, specifically, in the kidnapping of nine dissidents and the death of one of them - events linked to Operation Condor, an intelligence-sharing network of South American dictators who helped one another hunt down dissidents in the 1970s and 80s.

New legal changes

The process of change in Chile has been gradual, explains Mr. Brett. In 1991, the Truth Commission report first documented the Pinochet-era abuses. This was followed a decade later by new code of penal procedures, set to go into effect next year, which has paved the way for more than 250 private lawsuits against Pinochet for alleged rights abuses.

Just last month a special commission presented harrowing accounts from 28,000 former political prisoners of the Pinochet years. Mr. Lagos has since said his government will pay up to $215 a month to about 35,000 victims. "We are taking measures to heal the wounds," he said.

"Things are looking good at the moment on the human rights front," says Brett. "There are qualitative leaps forward."

Moreover, notes Brett, support for Pinochet took a nosedive earlier this year in the wake of revelations that he secretly squirreled away millions of dollars in a US bank. In July, a US Senate report revealed that Pinochet had stashed far more than he could have earned on a government salary in Riggs Bank, based in Washington. Chile's tax authorities are investigating.

"Before, even those opposed to Pinochet would have to admit the country was in good shape economically [because of policies initiated by Pinochet], and many of his supporters could point to his honesty as a great asset," says Brett. There is a feeling now in Chile, he concludes, "that this man is rotten, through and through."

Pinochet's lawyers, contending Pinochet has a deteriorating mental condition, have called the indictment and detention a violation of his rights and have already appealed the decision - winning their client at least another day of freedom.

Twice under house arrest

Monday's decision marked the second time Pinochet has been placed under house arrest in Chile. In 2001, he was ordered held in a case related to the "Caravan of Death," a military sweep that led to the executions of more than 70 leftist activists and officials. In that case, the Supreme Court had Pinochet released after 41 days and the case dropped, saying he was mentally unfit to stand trial.

The decision to find Pinochet competent this time, says Guzman, was based on reports from court-appointed doctors, as well as on an interview Pinochet gave to a Spanish-language TV station in Miami last year.

In that interview, Pinochet said he saw himself as "a good angel" and blamed abuses on subordinates in his regime. Guzman said the former leader appeared to be lucid and concerned with how history would see him.

"I don't want people in the future to think bad [of me]," Pinochet said in the interview. "I want them to have the truth." He added: "Everything I did, I would do again."

Even if Pinochet's appeal succeeds, his problems are far from over.

In a separate case, the Santiago Court of Appeals voted recently to strip him of immunity from prosecution for a 1974 car bombing in Argentina that killed a Chilean general and his wife - a ruling that opened the possibility of a new trial.

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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