Global Policy Forum

Gen. Pinochet’s Trial Should Go Forward


Our Opinion: People of Chile Deserve Answers About Tormented Past

Miami Herald
December 15, 2004

The decision to place Gen. Augusto Pinochet on trial for alleged human-rights abuses is a victory for Chile's system of justice and the rule of law. Fourteen years after the Pinochet dictatorship ended, the country still is struggling to come to terms with a tormented past. A mountain of questions remains about the 17-year military regime that Gen. Pinochet led and about the orders he gave. The people of Chile deserve answers.

If Gen. Pinochet truly is a ''good angel'' who saved the country from leftist chaos, which is how he portrayed himself in a Spanish-language interview with a Miami TV station last year, he should be happy to have the truth revealed in a court of law. This interview, in which Gen. Pinochet appeared to be in control of his faculties, helped persuade Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia that the general is mentally competent to stand trial.

Murder network

If the Supreme Court agrees -- it has twice blocked earlier prosecutions after the general's lawyers argued that he wasn't up to it for health reasons -- the focus will be on the general's role in Operation Condor. This multinational murder and kidnapping network was operated by the military leaders of six South American countries, including Chile, and was designed to rub out leftist opponents. Its victims included former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, killed in a car-bomb explosion in 1976 in Washington, D.C.

Much is known already about the Letelier murder. But Judge Guzmán has spent months taking evidence from former subordinates of Gen. Pinochet that sheds new light on Operation Condor in 10 other cases. The evidence allegedly establishes a chain of command that leads to the general's desk. A network with the complexity of Operation Condor cannot be created without approval from the top, and that is what the trial will be about.

Not above the law

What is most important is that the evidence be tested in a court of law -- and let the chips fall where they may. Go through the process that establishes the truth or falsity of the charges in a fair and open judicial proceeding. As things now stand, given two previous exculpatory rulings, there is every appearance that Gen. Pinochet has unfairly managed to duck the charges and is above the law, answerable to no one for his actions.

Not incidentally, the trial could have a salutary effect on other Latin American countries. As Operation Condor makes clear, Chile wasn't the only place where government leaders resorted to extra-legal means to deal with guerrillas and political opponents. If the people of Chile are strong enough to demand to know what crimes were committed in their name, and by whom, the people of Argentina, Mexico and other countries whose leaders have tried to sweep the past under the rug also can demand to know the truth.

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