Old age for Chile’s former strongman Augusto Pinochet and Indonesia’s former President Suharto looks much different from anything they had probably envisaged. These two distinguished men, each of whom fashioned himself as the savior of his country, are now rethinking their retirement plans. Instead of basking in the glory of a job well done and receiving the thanks of a grateful nation, they both face trial.

Neither is likely to be punished with imprisonment, however. It is more likely that age and infirmity will shield both of them from prosecution. And if legal proceedings are set in motion, it is doubtful whether either man would survive them. Nonetheless, human-rights activists and democrats the world over have reason to celebrate — and dictators have reason to be fearful. A simple, essential principle has prevailed: No one is above the law.

Mr. Pinochet’s hopes for a quiet retirement were upset this week when Chile’s supreme court voted 14-6 to strip him of his immunity from prosecution. That privilege — given to him as an unelected senator for life in Chile’s Upper House of Congress — was granted by the constitution he wrote before leaving office. Mr. Pinochet now faces charges associated with the deaths and disappearances of more than 3,000 people during his 17-year rule.

Mr. Pinochet may still avoid trial. He is 84 years old, and Chilean law stipulates that all defendants over the age of 70 must undergo a mental examination to ensure that they are fit to stand trial. The president’s family has said that it will fight that indignity, which promises another procedural wrangle and another delay. Mr. Pinochet was sent home from Britain, where he was first detained, for “humanitarian reasons” when doctors there determined he was unfit for a sustained legal ordeal. He suffers from diabetes and has a heart pacemaker. His doctors also claim that he has “irreversible brain damage” that was caused by two strokes suffered during his prolonged stay in Britain.

Half a world away, Mr. Suharto was feeling the reverberations of the “Pinochet Precedent.” On the same day that the Chilean Supreme Court handed down its ruling, the Jakarta government formally filed charges against the former president. In them, Mr. Suharto was accusing of embezzling $571 million from state-run foundations that were operated in his name during his 32 years in power. Prosecutors believe that Mr. Suharto probably took even more money than that, but they are focusing on the charities to build the strongest possible case.

Protesters are unlikely to be happy with the outcome of this case. The Indonesian government seems reluctant, at best, to prosecute. The former president may also be declared unfit for trial. He is reportedly unable to remember details and cannot contribute to his defense. President Abdurrahman Wahid has said that he would pardon Mr. Suharto if he is convicted of abuse of power. (That language leaves open the intriguing possibility that a conviction on charges of corruption would be another matter.)

Some victims and their families complain that the two men are getting off easy, and that they benefit from legal protections they denied their enemies. They miss the point.

Punishment is not the issue; justice is. These two men considered themselves above the law. They have been brought back to earth. Even if they do not face trial, they have been forced to suffer the indignity of being examined and labeled incompetent. If they are faking, then the sting is real. If they are not, then leniency is just.

Mr. Pinochet’s case has set a powerful precedent. Tyrants now know that they cannot hide from crimes they commit while in office. Mr. Suharto is the first to feel the shock waves of the historic ruling by the British Law Lords. While the point of law itself was not applicable, opponents of his regime were inspired and emboldened by the decision. Other strongmen have very good reasons to be worried. Human-rights groups have drawn up procedural guides to help prosecutors bring these offenders to justice.

The rule of law has been strengthened. That is the real victory. Democratic activists now have a potent new tool with which they can prod governments, no matter how reluctant, to act. Victims and their families will find solace in knowing that the perpetrators of crimes against them have been condemned for their acts. Some will be punished. Others will not, but they will no longer sleep as soundly as before.

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.