NEW YORK — The decision by Chilean Judge Juan Guzman Tapia on Dec. 13 to indict former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet on charges of kidnapping nine political dissidents and killing one of them during his 17-year military regime is a significant one for Chile. Guzman ruled that Pinochet, 89, is mentally competent to face a criminal trial.
Said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch: “This indictment is a great victory for Pinochet’s victims. Whether this indictment leads to a trial or not, it is a historic achievement given the untrammeled power Pinochet enjoyed for decades.”
Guzman’s decision to indict Pinochet follows his questioning of him and an examination of reports from court-appointed doctors. The decision was also based on an interview that the former dictator had with TV reporter Maria Elvira Salazar on Channel 22 in Miami late last year, during which Pinochet appeared mentally alert and unrepentant concerning his past.
In response to Salazar’s question about his responsibility for crimes during his rule, Pinochet said: “That’s difficult — how one sees oneself. Always as an angel. I have no regrets at all. I have not assassinated anyone. I haven’t ordered the killing of anyone. I feel that would be an aberration. I am a Christian first, then the rest.”
If tried, Pinochet will have a difficult time proving his assertions. His indictment is part of an investigation into the so-called Operation Condor, a joint plan by several South American nations in the 1970s and 1980s to share intelligence to persecute, torture and kill opponents of the countries’ regimes.
During the 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship, thousands of people were tortured and “disappeared,” and several thousand were imprisoned or sent into exile.
Pinochet’s indictment comes shortly after the release of the findings of a National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture appointed by Chile’s President, Ricardo Lagos. The commission found that 94 percent of the people detained in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup against President Salvador Allende had been tortured.
Of the 3,400 women who testified, nearly all had suffered sexual torture, and more than 300 had been raped, including 11 who were pregnant during their detention.
In an unusual move, Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, the chief of the army, acknowledged for the first time that the army’s institutional responsibility for human rights violations during Pinochet’s rule. According to Cheyre, the context of the ideological conflict and the Cold War might explain but could never justify human rights violations.
Pinochet’s lawyers justified their client’s actions stating that he was fighting a war. However, several conventions make it illegal to murder or torture. These actions also violate the Nuremberg Charter and the U.N. Torture and Genocide conventions.
These treaties state that those responsible for such actions cannot enjoy diplomatic immunity or claim refugee status or political asylum. Those treaties also determine that torture, disappearances and summary executions cannot be pardoned.
In an unexpected ruling last May, the Santiago Appeals Court stripped Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution as a former head of state. That decision was upheld by Chile’s Supreme Court in August, paving the way for Pinochet’s recent indictment.
Following Pinochet’s indictment, his lawyer, Pablo Rodriguez, stated, “This is an abuse of the most basic human rights of a person who is put on trial without being able to defend himself.” This is an interesting statement about a man who, due to his position and power, epitomized the violations of human rights worldwide.
Trying Pinochet for crimes committed during his rule has important implications. His trial will blaze a pathway toward rebuilding the country’s justice system that was destroyed by the tyrant and afforded protection of those guilty of brutal crimes.
The trial of the most notorious strongman in Chile’s history will show that no matter how powerful a person is, it is never too late for any dictator, anywhere, to be held to account for his crimes.