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A Trial for Pinochet Now Looks Certain




January 30, 2001

LONDON - The Pinochet affair is now inexorably moving towards its denouement. The script is written. The players have but to act out their lines, which we in the audience by now know almost as well as the actors themselves. At last, this most miserable of men is set to confront his fate and witness his own final destruction- in name, and mind, but not in body. The Chilean social and legal system is too kind and forgiving for that- even the daughter of Salvador Allende, the president he overthrew, asks for mercy once the trial is over. Thus mankind this year will take a giant step forward towards its goal of civilization, a state of political being where the rule of law grounded in the belief that disputes can be settled short of violence triumphs over the baser and more primitive instincts of each one of us.

In Chile Judge Juan Guzman this week, his interrogation of General Augustino Pinochet completed, set the wheels in motion for a trial almost exactly two and a quarter years since Scotland Yard detectives, acting on a warrant from a Spanish judge, arrested Pinochet in a London clinic where he was recovering from a back operation. The next day former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher attacked the police publicly for disturbing the rest of a "sick and frail old man".

The arrest of Pinochet at the time appeared like a bolt from the blue. Amnesty International had tried, but failed, on Pinochet's previous visits to Britain to persuade the authorities to investigate the case. Not even the most well-informed considered it a possibility. It can be said with certainty that it never crossed the mind of the British judges who were soon to be landed the job of untangling the legal intricacies.

Looking back it was Amnesty International's decision in December 1972 to campaign for a UN Convention on Torture that was the undoing of Pinochet. Ironically it was Pinochet's coup in Chile in September 1973 that gave an enormous boost to the Amnesty campaign. It gave a sense of immediacy and urgency to everything that Amnesty had been saying, spilling over into the UN General Assembly which began its session only days after the coup. At the time most Third World and Communist countries were highly suspicious of "Western" critiques of their human rights behaviour. But Allende was to many of them an heroic figure, and they suspected that the U.S. was behind his overthrow.

For all that, it took eleven years of hard, grinding work before the UN approved a legally binding treaty against torture, in 1984. The list of those who fought for it included the expected, Scandinavian governments and Holland, and the quite unexpected, the U.S. Administration of Ronald Reagan and the British government led by Margaret Thatcher.

When, after Pinochet's arrest, the House of Lords, Britain's highest court, met to decide on whether he was eligible for trial it was Amnesty International which presented a long and detailed disposition. Never before had a high court anywhere allowed a non-governmental organization to file an argument on such a sensitive political matter. The court agreed by a majority of six to one that torture was an international crime and there was no immunity even for heads of state.

That the British government then decided to allow Pinochet to return to Chile because they judged that his health was precarious will be a black mark forever in Prime Minister Tony Blair's book. To allow Pinochet his freedom, before the line was properly drawn in history's sands, was to fudge a major turning point in the world's maturing understanding of jurisprudence.

At the time the British government had no way of knowing that the Chilean courts would pick up the baton in the way they recently have. The Chilean Supreme Court even today has on its bench judges selected by Pinochet. The army, as was demonstrated by the tremendous welcome it staged for Pinochet on his return from London, still finds a place for him in its heart. Yet something has profoundly changed in Chile over the years- and his two year detention in Britain and the court case there clearly worked to compel Chile to confront its past.

The Chilean doctors, unlike their British counterparts, decided he was fit for trial, even though the examination was carried out in a military hospital. The armed forces are not muscling in to save him. Indeed one highly placed general from the Pinochet years has now denounced him.

The end is in sight. It has now gone too far for there to be any turning back. Pinochet will be surely convicted. And the world will be a safer place than it was before, not just in Chile, but everywhere.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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