If Gen. Augusto Pinochet had not been arrested in England on the night of October 16, 1998, the truth about his crimes would never have been fully revealed and democracy in Chile might have remained in a state of arrested development.
Eight years after Pinochet relinquished power, he still cast a long shadow over Chilean society. The Senate was stacked with his supporters. The Chilean courts lacked true independence. Painfully little progress had been made in restoring democratic rights to the importance they had enjoyed before the military takeover. Although a majority of Chileans hoped that Pinochet would stand trial for the atrocities committed during his rule, the “Senator for Life” benefited from parliamentary immunity and a 1978 amnesty that the military had granted itself. In the face of Pinochet’s lingering power, the elected government quickly abandoned its pledge to seek derogation or annulment of the self-amnesty law. Indeed, despite a highly regarded report by a government-sponsored truth commission, proof of Pinochet’s own role in the worst atrocities remained largely circumstantial.
Pinochet’s arrest by British police, and his seventeen months of humiliating detention, changed all that, unleashing a renewed debate in Chile about the legacy of the military government and rekindling hopes of justice for Pinochet’s thousands of victims. Previously timid Chilean judges began looking for chinks in the dictator’s legal armor. After decades of silence, Pinochet’s former collaborators stepped forward to tell of his role in covering up atrocities, revelations that have had a snowball effect.
The number of criminal cases against Pinochet jumped to dozens, then hundreds. By the time British Home Secretary Jack Straw sent Pinochet back to Chile, ostensibly on health grounds, the myth of his immunity had been totally shattered.
The reinvigorated Chilean courts skirted the 1978 military self-amnesty by ruling that prosecutions of ongoing “disappearances” are not barred, because the crime continues as long as the fate of the victim is concealed. Pinochet could thus be prosecuted for his role in the “Caravan of Death,” a helicopter-borne military group that executed and “disappeared” seventy-five political prisoners shortly after the 1973 coup. In a historic ruling last August, the Chilean Supreme Court lifted Pinochet’s senatorial immunity. Months later he was formally indicted by a Chilean judge for murder and disappearances and placed under house arrest, something that would have been simply inconceivable two years ago.
At several stages, Pinochet’s shrill and seemingly powerful supporters–the military, the wealthy and the principal newspapers they own–sought to create an institutional crisis with gestures of defiance; but each time they backed down in the face of government and popular support for the rule of law.