Who's going to definitively catch former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet first? The slow, grinding wheels of earthly justice or the swift ruthlessness of the Grim Reaper?
Just as the latest criminal case against the 91 year-old former general was about to be heard one more time in the Santiago courts on Monday, Pinochet suffered an acute heart attack. He was immediately hospitalized and submitted to emergency surgery. Last rites have been given.
As the case with much of his life, even his possible impending death has been shrouded with deception. Doctors have contradicted the version offered by Pinochet's son, Marco Antonio, that he was given a bypass. Attending physicians say it was, instead, an angioplasty. Similar reports say that the former dictator's life still hangs in the balance and that the next 24-48 hours will be crucial to his survival.
Pinochet's hospitalization required a temporary lifting of the house arrest he has been under. Pinochet was indicted just last week for the murder of two of former President Salvador Allende's bodyguards. This was the fifth indictment on human rights charges made against the general who presided over a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. More than 3100 people were killed by Pinochet's regime, and tens of thousands of others were tortured. Pinochet is also facing charges related to tax evasion for millions of dollars of unaccounted income -- thought by experts to be the product of covert arms or drug sales.
On two previous occasions, Pinochet's health has allowed him to escape impending trial. His current hospitalization will most likely short-circuit any future possibility of his taking the stand. But it seems almost as likely that this episode will also take his life.
On his 91st birthday only ten days ago, Pinochet issued a statement that broadly accepted responsibilities for the abuses during his tenure. But the statement also justified his imposition of dictatorship: "Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbor no rancor against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all and that I take political responsibility for everything that was done which had no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration," he said in the statement.
The center-left Chilean civilian government has limited itself to saying that it is "prepared" for Pinochet's imminent death. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was evasive when asked if the former dictator would be afforded a state funeral.
Human rights activists are dismayed that Pinochet might expire before he is formally judged guilty by a Chilean court. Egregious human rights violations were missing from the Chilean political agenda until Pinochet's surprise 1998 arrest in London jump-started the debate. A crusading and now retired Judge Juan Guzman Tapia broke open the political taboos and initiated charges against the general.
The succeeding legal probes of Pinochet kept the human rights issue alive in Chile and several top military officers have been indicted. Some of the human rights activists now fear that if Pinochet dies, interest in the lingering and unresolved investigations will succumb with him. Here's to General Pinochet! A long life!