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Augusto Pinochet entered political life in 1973 by destroying the rule of law. Now, twenty-eight years later, thanks to a decision by a Chilean appeals court, he exits the public stage still beyond the reach of the law. The July 9 ruling found the 85-year-old former dictator too sick to stand trial for his role in the kidnap and murder of dozens of civilians. Plaintiffs will attempt a last-chance reversal, but observers agree that this is probably the end of the general's legal travails, which began in October 1998 when he was detained in London on a Spanish arrest warrant.
Over these past three years, Pinochet has been extended every legal recourse and guarantee that he denied his opponents. He was not beaten, kidnapped, tortured or "disappeared." Instead of being hauled before a kangaroo court and sentenced to summary execution, he was delicately passed from the Spanish legal system to the Crown Prosecution Service to the House of Lords to the Chilean Supreme Court.
But then the courts blinked. As the typically understated Chileans would say, this final outcome is lamentable. Still, much has been gained. Pinochet's arrest by Scotland Yard and his detention for 503 days in London shook open the Chilean system and eventually led to Pinochet's indictment in Santiago. A courageous judge, Juan Guzmán Tapia, piled up more than 250 criminal complaints against Pinochet, and he boldly resisted intimidation attempts by Chile's military as well as its civilian government. Soon, dozens of other former military officers, including an active-duty general or two, found themselves formally accused. At precisely the moment when Chile's unresolved human rights debate was threatened with extinction, it came roaring back to life. The Chilean military, which had refused to accept any responsibility for the bloodletting during its seventeen-year rule, finally admitted to killing and throwing into the sea scores of its opponents. Today, even the Chilean right takes pains to distance itself from the sullied general whom it once venerated as a demigod.
Pinochet may be spared trial, but his status as an indicted criminal will stand. His closest collaborators still face prosecution, not only in Chilean courts but also in other Latin American and European legal venues. The Bush Justice Department claims its investigation of Pinochet's role in the 1976 car-bomb murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt is still active. It should be pressured to follow through with an indictment. And a fearless Judge Guzmán continues his work in Chile. In early July he was reported to have issued letters to the US government requesting that then-Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel Davis and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reveal what they know about the murder of Charles Horman, one of two Americans killed in the opening days of the Pinochet dictatorship. As for Pinochet, now suffering from diabetes, "moderate dementia," dental woes and permanent public scorn, one can only wish him many more years among us.