Global Policy Forum

Chile Turns Against Pinochet


By Ignacio Badal

December 22, 2004

Chileans are turning more and more against ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet, making courts more likely to put the ailing retired general on trial for human rights abuses during his 1973-1990 regime, political scientists said. The Supreme Court will make a key ruling in the coming days over whether murder and kidnapping charges against Pinochet can proceed in a human rights case, a decision preceded by a string of court rulings against Pinochet this year.

"Public opinion is more and more negative regarding Pinochet ... and that obviously influences the judges as they review their own past rulings," said Oscar Godoy, a political analyst with Chile's Catholic University. The mood contrasts with the 1990s when Chile returned to democracy but the ex-dictator remained untouchable, shielded by conservative courts, the military and millions of Chileans who lauded him for saving the country from economic chaos.

But this year Pinochet's support faded even among conservatives when it came out he stashed $8 million (4.2 million pounds) in secret accounts. A report this year from the centre-left government that detailed systemic torture of more than 27,000 people during military rule was another blow for Pinochet's reputation. "Pinochet's unexplained riches ... together with the report on imprisonment and torture, have generated an environment in which people are more accepting of Pinochet being charged (with crimes)," said Guillermo Holzmann, a political analyst at the University of Chile.

A poll in September showed that Pinochet had lost credibility even among his strongest supporters. Two thirds of Chileans do not believe Pinochet's explanation that money in secret accounts was legitimate savings, the poll showed.

Pinochet, 89, went home from the hospital on Wednesday four days after a stroke. Rights attorneys said the hospitalization was a defence ploy but his family said the stroke was so severe he was given Catholic last rites.

Three consecutive centre-left presidents have lead Chile and Pinochet, who came to power in a 1973 military coup, has been growing more isolated. More than 3,000 people died in political violence during his regime. This month Judge Juan Guzman charged Pinochet with murder and kidnappings in the cases of 10 Chileans who died or disappeared under Operation Condor -- a joint repression of leftists by South American military leaders in the '70s.

On Monday the Santiago Appeals Court gave the green light to the Operation Condor charges, a turnaround from 2001 when the same court said he was too ill to stand trial. Now the Supreme Court must decide on the Condor case. However it rules, cases are building up. Earlier this year the appeals court also stripped Pinochet of immunity in a case involving the 1974 assassination of a Pinochet rival. Courts are probing accusations of tax evasion and fraud in the case of his secret bank accounts.

The Untouchable?

Pinochet seemed untouchable until 1998 when he was detained in London on international arrest warrant from Spain on charges of crimes against humanity. When Pinochet returned to Chile in 2000 he had to confront a flood of rights cases against him and other military members. Many officers have been convicted of rights abuses but Pinochet has thus far avoided trial.

Two years ago it looked like he was close to trial on murder charges in the Caravan of Death case -- a 1973 tour of the country by officers who executed dozens of political opponents. But in 2002 the Supreme Court ruled he was not in condition to stand trial because of his mild dementia.

Pinochet has diabetes, heart problems, and frequent strokes that make him somewhat disoriented. Pinochet has undermined his own mental health defence strategy, analysts say. Late last year he gave a lucid interview to a Miami television station. Then he was spotted buying history books in Santiago.

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