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CHILE: Paraguayan Dictator’s Death Revives Debate on Pinochet

Analysis by Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Aug 17 2006 (IPS) - The death of former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner has revived debate in Chile as to how the government and the army will react when former dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) dies.

Chilean army chief General Oscar Izurieta brought the subject up in public on Wednesday night, after the 93-year-old Stroessner’s death in exile in Brazil was reported. Izurieta said the army would provide Pinochet with “every honour” if he is still facing legal action when he dies, because he is legally “presumed innocent” until proven guilty.

The army chief was speaking in response to a question from a Chilevisión reporter regarding Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte’s statement that he would allow Stroessner’s body to be brought back from Brasilia, but that the former dictator would not receive any kind of honours, as he was a fugitive from justice at the time of his death.

Pinochet, 90, suffers from diabetes and cardiovascular problems, and is under constant medical supervision. However, his health problems have helped him stave off legal action for charges of crimes against humanity.

Human rights groups complain that his supposed mild senility has helped him gain impunity, after courts have ruled that he is mentally unfit to stand trial in connection with cases involving the “caravan of death”, a special army mission that killed political prisoners around the country shortly after the coup in 1973, and the 1974 assassination of former army chief General Carlos Prats, Pinochet’s predecessor, in Buenos Aires.

Although there is still a chance that the cases may be reopened, activists and analysts question whether the elderly former dictator is really senile, or is merely eluding justice, including cases in which he and his family are being investigated for tax fraud and misappropriation of public funds.

Secret accounts held by Pinochet, his wife, their five children and several of the ex-dictator’s close associates, in the U.S.-based Riggs Bank and other overseas financial institutions, point to tax evasion and illicit enrichment, according to the case brought against them in the Chilean courts last year.

Although Judge Juan Guzmán, who is now retired, ruled that Pinochet should be tried for his responsibility for 57 murders and 18 “kidnappings” (forced disappearances) committed by the “caravan of death”, in July 2002 the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that he was not mentally competent to stand trial.

And in March 2005, the Supreme Court overruled an earlier appeals court verdict that had stripped Pinochet of immunity from prosecution, a decision that had been based on his supposed “dementia”.

The Supreme Court thus closed the case in which the former dictator faced charges for the car bomb assassination of General Prats and his wife, which was organised by the dictatorship’s secret police, DINA, whose chief, then Colonel Manuel Contreras, directly answered to Pinochet.

Pinochet was not found innocent in either of the cases, but merely judged unfit to stand trial, based on controversial medical exams that found that he suffered from “mild dementia”.

To justify the army’s plans to provide full military honours at Pinochet’s eventual funeral, Izurieta argued that the retired general must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. “If there was a sentence against him, things would be different. But as long as he is facing prosecution, he is presumed innocent under the law,” he maintained.

A controversial argument, not only due to the lack of a ruling finding him innocent in the “caravan of death” and Prats cases, but also because after Pinochet was found to be senile, he continued managing bank accounts abroad, according to the investigations in the Riggs Bank case.

He and his family and his cronies are estimated to have accumulated at least 20 million dollars in secret bank accounts.

The army is not only prepared to provide Pinochet with military funeral honours as former army commander, a post he held from 1973 to 1998, but it also continues to grant him privileges, like a hefty pension and bodyguards, as well as covering the costs of his defence in the various cases he is facing.

However, Pablo Rodríguez, founder of the now defunct extreme-right Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Freedom) movement, who heads Pinochet’s team of defence attorneys, has repeatedly stated that he is defending the retired general pro bono, out of political conviction.

Many international observers find it incomprehensible that Pinochet continues to enjoy military benefits and the status of retired general despite the multiple charges against him for human rights violations and corruption.

But the same is true in the case of former DINA chief Contreras, who despite having served seven years for the 1976 assassination of former foreign minister Orlando Letelier, and in spite of his current imprisonment in connection with another human rights case, has been neither discharged from the army nor demoted.

The analogies between Stroessner and Pinochet go beyond their common characteristics as elderly former dictators. They also forged certain ties while ruling their countries with an iron fist.

Stroessner was one of the few exceptions to the international community’s ostracism of the Chilean dictatorship. In September 1974, a year after the coup d’etat in which Pinochet overthrew democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, the Paraguayan strongman visited Santiago as a guest of honour to celebrate the “day of glories of the army”, and exchanged decorations with Pinochet.

In addition, it was the Paraguayan dictatorship (1954-1989) that provided fake passports to two DINA agents, Major Armando Fernández Larios and Michael Townley, a U.S. expatriate, thus enabling them to enter the United States with the cover needed to plan Letelier’s assassination, in conjunction with members of the anti-Castro Cuban exile community.

Furthermore, “Stroessner, along with other dictators like Augusto Pinochet, Rafael Videla (of Argentina), Juan María Bordaberry (of Uruguay) and Hugo Bánzer (of Bolivia), was one of those responsible for the sinister Operation Condor,” notes a declaration by the Group of Families of the Detained-Disappeared in Chile.

Through the covert Operation Condor strategy, “the dictatorships of the Southern Cone region were able to eliminate their political opponents, especially leftist activists, in a coordinated and systematic manner,” the statement says.

The human rights group adds that “the death of the former dictator leaves a vacuum in the international community due to the inability to investigate, clarify and try the crimes and corruption committed by Stroessner against Paraguay, leaving the sensation that another dictator has died in the most absolute impunity, sheltered by a mistaken interpretation of the purpose of political asylum.”

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