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Why Chile must finally
prosecute Pinochet



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

September 29, 2004

LONDON - Could it be that the Pinochet affair is now moving inexorably towards its denouement? Even more a cause celebre among human rights activists than the case of the Serbian, Slobovan Milosevic, it remains unresolved since the arrested former dictator was allowed to walk free four years ago from his detention in Britain.

General Augusto Pinochet's crimes were no ordinary crimes of the maintenance of political authority in a time of turbulence. They continued until 1990, long after Pinochet announced in 1978 that the "communist threat", with which he had justified his coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, had ended. "The rituals of torture were intended to send horrific whispers through the populace", wrote Geoffrey Robertson in his book, Crimes Against Humanity. Pinochet, it is alleged, personally supervised the torture operations with the boss of the torture unit, Manuel Contreras, reporting daily to him. He is also the man who on occasion joked that the "disappearances" had saved bereaved families the cost of coffins.

A determined investigating Chilean judge, Juan Guzman, is trying hard to bring Pinochet to justice one more time. On Saturday he questioned the 88 year-old Augusto Pincochet in an attempt to nail down Pinochet's knowledge of the horrendous catalogue of human rights' abuses.


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It is almost six years to the day that very late one evening police officers in London sealed off a private medical clinic where Pinochet was recovering from an operation on his back and arrested him. The request for his arrest had come from Spain's well-known anti-terrorist judge, Baltasar Garzon, and was made under the European Convention on Extradition. The next day former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, attacked the police publicly for disturbing the rest of a "sick and frail old man".

Lower courts quickly handed the case to Britain's highest court, the justices of the House of Lords. The process crystallized half a century's debate on the legal and political problems of accountability for crimes against humanity. For the first time in a high court anywhere it was decided that sovereign immunity must not be allowed to become sovereign impunity. For that we have to thank most of the nations world, including Thatcher's Britain and Ronald Reagan's America, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s put their signatures to the UN Convention Against Torture and thus laid the legal basis for the House of Lords' ruling.

But then, just as it appeared that Pinochet would be shipped to Spain for criminal trial, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that it was "minded" to allow Pincochet to be released because an examination by doctors had found him not fit to be tried. On March 3rd, 2000, he was allowed to fly home where on the tarmac of a Santiago airbase he jumped out of his wheelchair and greeted the welcoming military officers with great gusto.

Nine months later Pinochet was subjected to a court-mandated medical examination in a Chilean hospital. It is clear that the Chilean doctors did a much more thorough job than their British counterparts, of whom only one of the four member panel spoke Spanish. "The examinations carried out in London were very insufficient for a diagnosis", said Dr Luis Fornazzari, the neuro-psychiatrist on the team. The Chilean doctors concluded that Pinochet's strokes had been light enough that he was fit enough to follow the course of a trial.

Although the Chilean judge who had ordered the health examination, the same Juan Guzman, wanted to charge Pinochet with murder an appeals court voted to accept the argument that Pinochet was in no state to defend himself.

But now, three years' later, Pinochet is back under questioning again, the Supreme Court having last month lifted Pinochet's immunity. Stupidly for him, Pinochet recently allowed himself to bounce back into the limelight, seemingly healthy, giving a couple of bravado press interviews. On top of that came the revelation by a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate that while in power the supposedly austere general, only interested in law and order, had secreted $8m in accounts at Riggs bank in Washington.

The tide of opinion has now turned far enough in Chile, even among the military, for a trial to go ahead without a threatening political revolt.

It should. Pinochet by all accounts is healthier than Milosevic, and for all the delays at the UN war crimes court few want to see Milosevic walk free on health grounds. These cases are just too important for the health card to be played. To allow these two their freedom before the line is properly drawn in history's sands would be to fudge a major turning point in the world's maturing understanding of human rights' law. Seen properly to their conclusion these trials will lay down a marker for all time.


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


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



Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"




Här kan du läsa om - och köpa - Jonathan Powers bok på svenska

"Som Droppen Urholkar Stenen"



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