Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-CHILE: Pinochet Trial, Acid Test for Democratic Transition

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Apr 25 2000 (IPS) - The trial on the lifting of former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s parliamentary immunity, to start Wednesday, will be an acid test for Chile’s judiciary, whose independence has long been questioned, as well as for the incomplete transition to democracy.

The 21 magistrates sitting on the Santiago appeals court will decide whether to suspend the immunity Pinochet enjoys as life senator, in order to make it possible for the 84-year-old retired general to be tried in connection with the kidnapping and forced disappearance of 19 political prisoners, victims of the so-called “caravan of death” in 1973.

The judges will hand down their verdict in a case that could stretch out for up to a month, and which will take place in the Palace of the Courts, with beefed-up security by Carabineros police.

The trial is set to open at 13:00 local time (17:00 GMT) Wednesday. The centre-left government of Ricardo Lagos has authorised demonstrations outside the Palace of the Courts by Pinochet’s critics as well as his supporters, who will gather in different streets.

The scene should thus be a reproduction of the emotionally charged demonstrations held during the various stages of Pinochet’s trial in London throughout the 503 days he spent under house arrest in Britain before returning to Chile on Mar 3, released on humanitarian grounds that thwarted his extradition to Spain.

Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón was seeking Pinochet’s extradition, to try him on charges of human rights violations committed during the 1973-90 de facto regime.

Only 26 people, including just four journalists, will attend the sessions, the limit set by the Supreme Court based on requests by Pinochet’s defence attorneys.

The Supreme Court revoked its initial authorisation to televise the proceedings and broadcast them live throughout the world.

Although Pinochet will not appear before the entire panel of judges, his accusers will, including the secretary-general of the Communist Party, Gladys Marín, the president of the Group of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD), Viviana Díaz, and the president of the Group of Relatives of the victims of Political Executions (AFEP), Patricia Silva.

In January 1998, Marín filed the first criminal lawsuit in connection with the “caravan of death” against Pinochet, then- commander-in-chief of the army, who retired from active service on Mar 11 that year and immediately swore in as senator-for-life.

Since then, the lawsuits against Pinochet have mushroomed to a total of 88 by Tuesday, 28 of them filed after the retired general’s return from Britain.

Judge Juan Guzmán is preparing the groundwork for criminal prosecution in all of the cases. However, his Mar 6 request for the suspension of Pinochet’s parliamentary immunity was only based on the first lawsuit filed, aimed at trying the former dictator as the instigator of the “caravan of death.”

The “caravan of death” was a special military mission headed by General Sergio Arellano as Pinochet’s personal delegate. The mission was to “expedite” the legal proceedings in military courts against leftists arrested in several Chilean cities in the wake of the 1973 coup d’etat.

Arellano and the other officers on the mission ordered the shooting of 72 political prisoners. But the bodies of 19 of the victims were not handed over to their families, a fact that led Guzmán to define those cases as kidnappings.

The judge thus got around the 1978 amnesty decreed by Pinochet, which would have forced him to dismiss the case if the disappearances had been legally defined as murders.

The aim of the lawyers representing Arellano and the rest of the officers implicated in the case is to get the 19 disappearances ruled as murders.

But with respect to Pinochet, the question is determining whether there is a well-founded presumption of guilt in terms of his alleged responsibility for the 19 disappearances, which would allow him to be tried.

The fate of the former dictator is thus in the hands of a judiciary that during the military regime was criticised for kowtowing to the powers-that-be and basically acting as an accomplice in the more than 3,000 political assassinations and forced disappearances documented by a government truth commission in 1991.

After the return to democracy in March 1990, the courts remained reluctant to challenge the still-powerful armed forces headed by Pinochet, continuing to respect, for example, the 1978 amnesty.

But the gradual turnover of the members of the Supreme Court and mid-level court judges paved the way for a shift in the past few years, also fuelled by the deterioration of Pinochet’s image as “untouchable” due to his arrest in London.

Since June 1999, Guzmán and two other judges have brought legal proceedings against a number of high-level retired officers, including six generals. The best-known were Humberto Gordon and Hugo Salas Wenzel, former heads of the dictatorship’s repressive apparatus, the ‘Central Nacional de Informaciones’ (CNI), and Carlos Forestier, former deputy-commander of the army.

Lagos’ centre-left coalition government has guaranteed the independence of the judiciary, and has announced that it will enforce whatever ruling is handed down by the appeals court.

But beyond the proclaimed respect for the autonomy of the justice system, the government, political parties and armed forces themselves are acutely aware that the trial on Pinochet’s parliamentary immunity will also serve as a litmus test for Chilean democracy.

Many hold that Chile’s transition to democracy will not be complete as long as the head of the dictatorship is protected by a mantle of impunity, and the wounds caused by the widespread human rights violations remain open.

Pinochet’s followers, meanwhile, ominously warn of instability for the political process if Pinochet is tried in connection with rights abuses. Their hope is that the former dictator will be exempted from trial, and that a law will be passed declaring all pending human rights cases closed once and for all.

 
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