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Last Updated: Friday, 8 September 2006, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
General Pinochet's dance with justice
Chile's former ruler Gen Augusto Pinochet has been stripped of immunity to face charges on both financial and human rights abuses.

But, as the BBC's Becky Branford reports, history has led his opponents to invest little hope in the possibility that he will ever stand in the dock.


General Augusto Pinochet in 2003
Pinochet's lawyers say he suffers dementia and cannot face trial

"Not a leaf moves in Chile if I don't know about it," General Augusto Pinochet famously declared in October 1981, eight years after he came to power in a military coup.

His opponents suspect he also knew about the 3,197 Chileans who are documented as dying under his iron-fisted rule, and some 28,000 who were tortured.

And 15 years since Gen Pinochet left office, they are wondering why the general, now 91, has never been tried in a Chilean court.

He should be charged in court for what he did. This has nothing to do with vengeance. This has to do with justice
Roberto Navarrete
Detained under Pinochet
Since 2000, Chilean courts have stripped Gen Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution several times. But every time - thus far - judges have gone on to pull back from a trial, usually citing concerns over the general's health.

Commentators suggest that behind the courtroom struggle over the general is a deep social schism about the nature and legacy of his rule.

'Untouchable'

Gen Pinochet finally left office in 1990, after his surprise defeat in a 1988 plebiscite which sought to grant him a further eight years in office.

PINOCHET TIMELINE
1970: Salvador Allende elected president
Aug 1973: Allende appoints Pinochet army commander-in-chief
Sept 1973: Pinochet seizes power in coup
1988: Pinochet loses referendum on rule; elections follow and he leaves office in 1990
1998: Arrested in London on Spanish warrant
2000: Freed on medical grounds

Armen Kouyoumdjian, Chile adviser to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, says the signs of the reluctance of the Chilean establishment to bring Gen Pinochet before a court were there early on.

In one of his very first speeches as president, Patricio Aylwin, who succeeded Gen Pinochet, said: "We will tackle the excesses of the past" - but added, "within the realm of the possible."

"Retrospectively, this was a very prescient declaration," Mr Kouyoumdjian told the BBC News website.

PINOCHET'S LEGAL PROTECTIONS
For eight years after leaving power, remained commander-in-chief of the army, immune from prosecution or removal
1980 constitution (revoked in 2005) created senator-for-life positions, again immune from prosecution, one of which Pinochet took up in 1998
Chilean congress was granted only limited powers and restrictions on constitutional change
1978 law created amnesty for all human rights crimes committed 1973-78
"Post-Pinochet, the Chilean civilian authorities thought that he was an untouchable figurehead. They never said exactly what they were afraid of. Maybe, 'If we touch Pinochet, what will the military do?'"

A number of technical mechanisms instituted during and after Gen Pinochet's rule also served to protect him from prosecution (see box).

Although a National Truth and Reconciliation Committee set up within days of the new government in 1990 soon lay bare part of the repressive role played by the state under Gen Pinochet, all requests for legal proceedings against him were rejected.

London 'watershed'

Gen Pinochet's arrest in London in 1998 was "a watershed", despite the fact he was freed in 2000, says Mr Kouyoumdjian.

"It showed the UK could do what the Chileans couldn't - and part of the defence's argument was that if anyone should try him, it should be Chileans, so they at least had to go through the motions."

Judge Juan Guzman, who spent years investigating Gen Pinochet's involvement in his regime's rights abuses
Judge Guzman says he faced political pressure to drop his case
Despite this, Gen Pinochet has yet to stand trial - due mainly to a Chilean legal clause which prohibits prosecution of people deemed mentally unfit.

Gen Pinochet has experienced several suspected minor strokes and his lawyers say he suffers from dementia, though his critics dispute this.

Judge Juan Guzman, who spearheaded the investigation into the role played by Gen Pinochet, retired in May, revealing in memoirs that he had faced political pressure to drop efforts to indict the general.

Exile's anguish

The failure to bring Gen Pinochet to trial is a source of anguish for Roberto Navarrete, a Chilean exile who has lived in the UK for 30 years.

Rosa Silva, whose father was a victim of Gen Pinochet's regime
It has been an emotional rollercoaster for Pinochet's pursuers
Mr Navarrete was a medical student and supporter of the Allende government at the time of the 1973 coup. He was arrested and spent a year inside the notorious National Stadium - used as a prison camp by the new regime.

He told the BBC News website an important reason to bring the general to trial was "closure".

"Our country is profoundly undemocratic because of things like this being swept under the carpet.

"Nobody really believes - I certainly don't - that Pinochet should go to prison, though he has put people of his own age in jail.

"But I do think he should be charged in court for what he did. This has nothing to do with vengeance. This has to do with justice."

'Fanciful'

This is disputed by retired General Guillermo Garin, who was second-in-command of the Chilean Army between 1994 and 1997, and acts as a spokesman for Gen Pinochet.

"What we have been seeing is a kind of political vengeance which has translated into persecution in the courts of justice," he told the BBC News website.

Gen Garin insists Gen Pinochet is ill and "incapable of defending himself".

He also rebuffs the notion that Gen Pinochet rewrote the constitution with an eye to protecting himself as "absurd".

"That's something fanciful said by people who are our most fervent enemies. If that had been his aim, he could have done it in a much simpler way - just by remaining in power until the day of his death, as has happened in other countries."

Behind the war of words also lie entrenched differences about what Gen Pinochet did to Chile during his 17 years in power.

While his opponents see him as a murderous despot who denied democracy in Chile, his supporters depict him as the defender of Chilean society against the scourge of communism.

Blow to reputation

But much of Gen Pinochet's support also rested on his reputation as an honest patriot who transformed the Chilean economy for the better.

And Mr Kouyoumdjian says that recent claims that he illegally squirreled away up to $27m in overseas bank accounts have served seriously to undermine his reputation.

Pinochet supporters demonstrate in Santiago in 1999 against his detention in London
Pinochet's support is not as strong and vocal as it once was
"One of the staunch lines of defence from his fan club was that he didn't steal - and that doesn't hold water any more. The big boss was filling his pockets the whole time! I have seen staunch Pinochetistas (supporters) extremely disappointed."

Several formerly vocal defenders of the general refused to be interviewed for this article.

But Mr Kouyoumdjian says while Gen Pinochet's support may have dwindled, opinion polls in Chile suggest only a small minority of the public believe bringing him to trial should be a priority.

"It is now a bit of a historical anecdote," he said.

The last rupture over the general will probably come when he dies, he says: for Chileans will then have to decide whether he should receive a state funeral, as protocol dictates.


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