Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, all of a sudden, is right back where he belongs–a hairsbreadth away from trial. On Friday, a Santiago appeals court made a stunning reversal when it stripped the 88-year-old former general of judicial immunity. A previous court ruling in 2001 had found Pinochet mentally unfit to stand trial on murder indictments deriving from his seventeen-year dictatorship.
But Pinochet was too wily by half. Instead of gratefully and quietly retreating behind his mansion gates, he was seen living it up in some Santiago supper clubs. And after he recently gave a lucid interview to a Miami-based Spanish-language TV station, the court apparently decided he might just be fit enough to spend some quality time in a courtroom dock.
Pinochet’s lawyers are expected to appeal last Friday’s ruling to the same Chilean Supreme Court that originally granted him immunity. Yet speculation is rife in Santiago that the political tide may have definitively turned against the former dictator–and that an eventual trial cannot be ruled out.
The conservative Santiago daily La Tercera reports that another reason for the reappraisal of Pinochet’s immunity stems from the gravity of the crimes that have come to light as part of the investigation into Operation Condor. Condor was the transnational repressive network led by Pinochet in the 1970s and early ’80s and whose crimes included the 1976 car-bombing murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC. La Tercera reports that some Chilean judges allegedly said that the multinational effort to track down and kill opponents of the various military regimes was an unparalleled display of “state terrorism” that must not go unpunished.
In Chile, human rights activists and lawyers are simply ecstatic that the aged dictator once again finds himself in jeopardy. Outside the country, however, there’s plenty of head-scratching going on. Wasn’t this whole mess already sorted out, I have been asked by several curious observers. Why is this still dragging on more than thirty years after Pinochet’s 1973 coup, almost fifteen years since he left power? Isn’t this all ancient history?
Hardly. And in that one-word answer reside some important lessons Americans might extract in how to proceed with the Abu Ghraib scandal. Though Pinochet murdered thousands and tortured even more, the cloak of terror with which he blanketed Chile muted any public recognition of the systematic abuse. Chile succumbed to a form of mass psychosis, a vehement collective denial of the most obvious sort of atrocities. Not until 1988, when Chile’s media were opened by a Pinochet-sponsored plebiscite campaign, did a Chilean national TV audience hear a direct accusation of state torture–thanks to the courage of a beloved soccer star, Carlos Cazely. A few weeks later Pinochet lost his own plebiscite and two years after that had to leave office.
But the collective trauma, shame and lingering fears still kept much of Chilean society mute in recognizing and coming to terms with state terror and torture. The first prosecution of military officers would not come until the late 1990s. As late as 1998 Pinochet was being honored as an appointed Senator for Life. Not until a year later was he finally indicted by Chilean courts for his crimes; and then only after he had been held for 501 days in British custody.
Consider this staggering thought: Not until this past month did Chilean citizens have the opportunity to offer testimony on torture to a formal government commission. Three decades after their torment, more than 30,000 victims came forth. With the Chilean experience in mind, it seems ever more imperative that no concession now be made to our own domestic bullies and demagogues who demand that further media coverage of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal be shut down lest we inflict irreparable damage to the Iraq war effort. The lessons of Chile teach us otherwise. What most distinguishes us from closed societies is not only our capacity to recognize official abuse but also our willingness to properly punish those who commit atrocities in the name of some Greater Cause.
There’s plenty of hedging, scapegoating and obfuscation currently being generated around the Abu Ghraib revelations. But we should take some pride in the fact that those revelations, nevertheless, keep coming. We have achieved in one month what it took Chile twenty-five years to grasp. That is the virtue of our democracy, whatever its limitations and distortions. May Pinochet now finally get his due. And may we go full speed ahead in getting to the bottom–or, better said, to the top–of our own investigation into state torture.