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The Pinochet Principle | The Nation

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The Pinochet Principle

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The arrest of Augusto Pinochet in England more than a year ago stunned the world and emboldened those seeking to bring dictators and war criminals to justice. Until his arrest, the old concept of sovereign immunity--and the natural tendency of political leaders to protect their own--shielded former dictators. Although it now looks probable that the British government will bar Pinochet's extradition to Spain on health grounds, the legal justification for his arrest has been upheld by Britain's Law Lords. In the hope of inspiring more extradition requests and war crimes trials, what follows is a late-twentieth-century bestiary. The list is of course incomplete, with special attention given, where appropriate, to the US role as enabler and accomplice. Reigning tyrants have been excluded, given that they're beyond reach of the law when at home and enjoy diplomatic immunity when traveling. Let a thousand prosecutions bloom!

About the Author

Roane Carey
Roane Carey
Roane Carey, managing editor at The Nation, was the editor of The New Intifada (Verso) and, with Jonathan Shainin, The...

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§ Jean-Claude Duvalier has been living in France since he was spirited out of Haiti in 1986 by the US Air Force, which helped him escape an angry populace fed up with his fifteen-year dictatorship. Until he ran out of the money he stole from the Haitian people, Duvalier luxuriated on the Côte d'Azur; now he's said to be living in penury in one of the scruffier suburbs of Paris. In the wake of Pinochet's arrest, a group of Haitian exiles in France who were tortured in Haiti before they fled filed suit against Duvalier alleging crimes against humanity. The case was thrown out because French law addresses only such crimes committed during World War II and because the crimes alleged occurred before 1994, when the law was adopted. The plaintiffs plan to file a civil suit, and if that fails, they will go to the European Court of Justice.

Among the coup leaders who ousted elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, Raoul Cédras and Philippe Biamby are now living in Panama; Michel François, a former CIA asset, is in Honduras; and Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, also a CIA asset and leader of the bloodsoaked death squad FRAPH, which was formed at the urging of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, is living in Queens, New York. Haiti has filed extradition requests for these men but has been turned down by all governments. In 1995 a US immigration judge ordered Constant's deportation, but the State Department intervened, allowing him refuge in the United States. The department says the deportation order is still valid but claims that he hasn't been shipped back because doing so might bring about "social disorder." This newfound concern for Haitian civil society is touching, in light of Washington's earlier encouragement of Constant's depredations.

§ Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish magistrate seeking Pinochet's extradition from England, recently issued an international arrest warrant for ninety-eight members of the military junta that ruled Argentina in the seventies and early eighties, charging genocide, torture and terrorism. The new Argentine president, Fernando de la Rúa, has not acted on the request. Two of the junta leaders, Leopoldo Galtieri and Gen. Roberto Viola, as well as many other officers implicated in human rights crimes, were trained at the US-run School of the Americas (SOA).

§ Gen. José Guillermo García was defense minister of El Salvador from 1979 to 1983. Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova was commander of the National Guard during the same period and succeeded García as defense minister. Under the supervision of these two--both of whom are SOA graduates--tens of thousands of Salvadorans were tortured and murdered, as were three American nuns and a lay worker in 1980. Although the US government has rejected asylum requests for thousands of Central Americans attempting escape from death squads, García and Vides Casanova have been granted residence in Florida. The families of the murdered nuns have filed a federal wrongful-death suit against the two generals, and a group of Salvadoran refugees and torture survivors has also filed federal charges.

§ Between 1978 and 1983, Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Ríos Montt slaughtered Guatemalans, especially the Mayans, with a savagery so appalling that the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission declared their regimes to be genocidal. Such behavior was clearly pleasing to the Reagan Administration, whose Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders (who directed from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh the B-52 carpet-bombing of vast, heavily populated sections of Cambodia in the early seventies) praised Ríos Montt for his "effective counterinsurgency"; Reagan himself told Congress that the dictator had been given a "bum rap." Lucas is living in quiet retirement in Venezuela. Ríos Montt entered civilian politics after he was overthrown in 1983; his Guatemalan Republican Front is now the leading party in the National Congress, with Ríos Montt himself having been elected to a seat and his ally Alfonso Portillo having been elected president this past December. Before the election, former members of the army's civil patrol threatened that if Portillo won, they would kill anyone who has testified about or denounced human rights violations. One positive development is the January arrest of three men for the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi. In December Nobel Peace Prizewinner Rigoberta Menchú, inspired by Garzón's case against Pinochet, filed charges in Spain against Lucas, Ríos Montt and six other officials of the dictatorships, charging them with genocide, state terrorism and torture. The charges include the Guatemalan military's 1980 assault on the Spanish Embassy; among the fourteen Spanish officials and twenty-five Guatemalan protesters burned alive was Menchú's father.

§ Alfredo Stroessner, who tortured and disappeared thousands during his three-decade dictatorship of Paraguay before his 1989 overthrow, now lives in a mansion in Brasília, Brazil. In 1992 a huge trove of documents was discovered in a Paraguayan police station that reveals not only Stroessner's deep involvement in Operation Condor, the Pinochet-led seven-nation assassination and torture campaign headquartered in Asunción, but close US cooperation with the dictatorships as well. Many of these documents have been forwarded to Judge Garzón in Spain.

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