LONDON — The freedom to murder your fellow citizens with impunity used to be what made up for the long hours and all the paperwork. Some people simply wouldn’t have taken the job of president without it, and Augusto Pinochet was one of them. If somebody had told the former Chilean dictator that he would one day be facing charges of kidnapping, torture, murder and illegal burial, he might never have left his barracks.

But he is facing charges, and in his own country, too. On Dec. 1, two years after Pinochet was arrested in Britain in response to a Spanish extradition request, and only eight months after the British government let him fly home on the grounds that he was too weak to stand trial, Chilean Judge Juan Guzman Tapia indicted him for the kidnapping of 19 Chileans who disappeared during his rule, and the murder of 55 others whose bodies have been recovered.

The general claims that he had to save his country from a (freely elected) Marxist government, denies any murders, and feels quite sorry for himself. In an address to 1,400 supporters on his 85th birthday last month, he spoke of his great hardships during 16 months of detention in Britain (he was under house arrest in a luxurious rented country estate), but “dedicated (his) suffering to the Chilean people.”

The murders and “disappearances” Pinochet is charged with are only a small fraction of the more than 3,000 killings that followed his 1973 coup, and it is still unlikely that Pinochet will ever spend a day in jail: The trial process may drag on for years. But there is consolation for the families of his victims in the fact that the truth about the horrors of the past is finally spilling out and being publicly acknowledged in Chile itself.

More importantly, valuable precedents have been created by the attempts to nail him for his crimes, first in international law, and now in Chilean law as well. Quite against his will, Pinochet is finally turning out to be a very useful citizen.

The extradition request issued in October, 1998 by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon for Pinochet’s torture and murder of Chileans holding Spanish citizenship marked the first time that anybody tried to use international law to bring a head of state to account. It took everyone completely by surprise, though the relevant treaty had been on the books since 1977.

Pinochet had felt quite safe in flying to London for a little shopping and medical treatment. But the British government actually arrested him, and a landmark case that went to the highest court in the country confirmed that ex-heads of state were liable to prosecution for gross abuses against human rights.

Britain finally sent Pinochet home because his physical frailties — diabetes, three minor strokes and gout — made it unsafe to put him on trial, but the principle that heads of state are no longer above the law was firmly established, not just in British but in international law. And though Pinochet’s rightwing admirers both in Britain and at home kept predicting that his arrest would cause a new coup in Chile, the opposite proved to be the case.

Emboldened by the decisions of the Spanish and British courts, Chile’s own supreme court voted 14-6 last August to cancel the lifetime immunity from prosecution that Pinochet had passed into Chilean law before finally relinquishing power in 1990. The amnesty he also passed for all crimes committed after 1973 remains on the books, but to avail himself of that he would have to admit to his crimes, which he very much wants to avoid.

His last line of defense was the silence of his fellow officers and the lack of written evidence connecting him to the murders, but Judge Guzman finally found a way around that. The “caravan of death” that Pinochet sent around the country only a month after the coup to execute prisoners already in army custody actually left tracks that lead back to him.

The point of the caravan of death was to bloody the hands of his chief rival in the army, Gen. Sergio Arellano Starck, and so commit him irrevocably to the coup and to Pinochet’s leadership. Arellano was given a notebook with 75 names, a couple of Puma helicopters, and orders to travel up and down the country carrying out the executions. Since the victims were already in army custody, this meant getting the compliance of local commanders, several of whom wanted to see written orders.

Arellano dealt with their objections by citing his written authority from Pinochet. When Guzman began retracing the route of the caravan of death a quarter of a century later and digging up the bodies, some of those officers came clean to save themselves. There is now a clear, legally provable trail leading directly to Pinochet.

Pinochet cannot avoid trial in Chile by pleading physical frailty. Only mental incapacity is an excuse under Chilean law, and he is too proud to claim that. The army still sympathizes with him, but clearly will not intervene to stop the process. Neither will President Ricardo Lagos Escobar, who has told the country that “we Chileans have to be able to understand that in a democracy, institutions must function in a free and independent way.”

There are 187 other cases against Pinochet pending in the Chilean courts, plus a new extradition request from Argentina for his role in a 1974 car-bombing in Buenos Aires that killed exiled Chilean Gen. He may never actually go to jail, but he will never have another peaceful moment.

And he is being useful at last.

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