The marbled corridors of the venerable Tribunal of Justice in downtown Santiago, deadly silent during the years of the military dictatorship, are now filled with the bustle of lawyers, clerks, police detectives and ministers pursuing past crimes of state. Chilean judges are not known for giving press conferences, but on December 13 several dozen reporters from local and international news organizations were waiting when Judge Juan Guzmán stepped out of his office at 1:35 pm after filing his decision on prosecuting Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
“Pinochet has been declared mentally fit to undergo criminal investigation,” Judge Guzmán told the large crowd, which included victims of repression and their families. He then announced that he had ordered Pinochet placed under house arrest and indicted for nine disappearances and one murder relating to Operation Condor–a Chilean-led consortium of secret police agencies that conducted hundreds of acts of state-sponsored terrorism in the Southern Cone and around the world in the mid- and late 1970s. Gasps echoed through the hall, then a ripple of applause, and then the sound of shrieks and tears as those who had lost husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, during Pinochet’s seventeen-year regime reacted. When the Chilean Supreme Court announced on January 4 that it had rejected Pinochet’s appeal of Guzmán’s ruling, mayhem once again broke out in the same hall.
The indictment has the most immediate meaning for those directly touched by the actions of Pinochet’s military. For the relatives of those missing and murdered, and those who survived the torture camps, the Pinochet prosecution is a vindication of their efforts to keep the cause of truth and justice alive in a society that has largely preferred to dismiss, rather than confront, Chile’s dark past. Coming the same week that the Chilean Congress was finalizing a law that would provide a modest monthly payment as compensation to thousands of people imprisoned and tortured during the Pinochet era, it offered a far more important moral reparation to these victims: the possibility that Pinochet would actually be judged.
The decision to prosecute Pinochet comes amid a flurry of activity around the cause of human rights. Since November, almost every day has brought a groundbreaking legal ruling, new indictment, dramatic announcement or event that has maintained the focus of the nation on the horrors of the past. The debate on whether and how to redress the human rights crimes of the Pinochet era–a debate long repressed by the Chilean military, right wing and post-Pinochet civilian governments–has escalated exponentially. “This is a Pandora’s box,” says Elizabeth Lira, one of Chile’s leading psychologists and a member of the national commission that recently compiled a massive report on torture by Pinochet’s forces. “I don’t know where it stops.”