The fight for justice in Chile moves forward. The decision by a Chilean court to strip former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet of his congressional immunity from prosecution is proof that the wheels of justice may turn slowly, but they grind nonetheless. The ruling may still be appealed to the supreme court, but the message is clear: Tyrants are running out of places to hide.

The exact number of victims of Mr. Pinochet’s rule may never be known. It is estimated that at least 3,000 people were murdered or “disappeared” during his 17 years in power. During that time, he once boasted that not even a leaf moved in Chile without his permission. Before leaving office after losing a plebiscite, Mr. Pinochet wrote a constitution that made him a senator for life and gave him immunity from all crimes committed during his term in office.

The general thought that was all the protection he needed. He learned otherwise in October, 1998, when he was subpoenaed during a visit to London by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who was investigating the disappearance of Spanish citizens in Chile during Mr. Pinochet’s rule. A British court made history when it ruled that Mr. Pinochet could be extradited for alleged human-rights violations committed during his term in office. The British government then released Mr. Pinochet after deeming him medically unfit to stand trial.

Upon his return home, Mr. Pinochet and his supporters discovered that the carefully constructed constitution was not the shield they thought it was. And the instrument of his downfall may be a particularly gruesome tool that was deployed during his rule.

Shortly after Mr. Pinochet seized power in 1973, the “Caravan of Death” was pressed into service. It toured cities, dragged prisoners from jail, held trials and killed them. But many of those victims disappeared; their bodies were never found or returned to their families. A Chilean judge has argued that the absence of a body means these cases are ongoing. That means they do not fall under the terms of the amnesty provision, which only covers crimes that were completed. Apparently, the Court of Appeals agrees. Last month, it voted 13-9 to lift Mr. Pinochet’s immunity, arguing that the crimes committed by the “Caravan of Death” had been substantiated, as had the chain of command under Mr. Pinochet. That ruling exposed him to 110 lawsuits filed on behalf of those killed or missing during his rule.

Mr. Pinochet’s lawyers are likely to appeal the case to the supreme court. And even if he loses that appeal, the former strongman is unlikely to go to trial. He is 84 years old and in failing health. There are serious doubts about his ability to contribute to his own defense. Charges against him are likely to be dismissed on the grounds that he is unfit to stand trial.

Yet even that outcome does not mean that the families of his victims have lost. The cause of human rights has been greatly advanced by this case. A precedent has been set. Tyrants are no longer able to commit crimes against their own citizens and then hide behind the shield of sovereign immunity.

The Chilean government has been forced to confront its past. So far, 60 retired officers, including five generals, are being prosecuted for human-rights abuses during Mr. Pinochet’s reign. The willingness to charge Mr. Pinochet is yet more proof that heads of state will be held accountable for crimes committed by their subordinates.

Chile’s democracy has been strengthened as well. During the British proceedings, the Santiago government maintained that it, not a Spanish court, was the best venue for such a hearing. Some doubted whether the government had the will to proceed. The doubters have been proven wrong.

The proceedings have also solidified constitutional order in Chile. There were fears that the military would not let the hearings proceed. A recent high-profile meeting of military chiefs added to the image of a country divided. When pressed, however, the head of the army, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, said that he would respect the courts’ decisions.

Some claim that it is unfair that Mr. Pinochet benefits from rights he denied his victims. Perhaps, but the rule of law is just that: a commitment to an order that is above the actions of any individual, whether that person is judge or defendant. Putting the former dictator in the dock, even if he is found incompetent to stand trial, is a humiliation and a punishment all its own. And that, of course, is the point of the exercise: justice, not revenge.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.