Before agreeing to step down in 1989, Pinochet awarded himself a parliamentary immunity from prosecution for the thousands of Chileans who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered during his 16 years of military rule. At the time, Chile's political parties had little choice but to accept that deal as the price for restoring democracy.
But the spell was broken two years ago in London, when British police arrested Pinochet for extradition to Spain on charges of kidnapping and torture. Although Britain eventually sent the Chilean strongman home on grounds of ill health, his sojourn there emboldened Chilean human rights advocates to press for Pinochet to be tried at home. Although the high court hasn't yet publicized its ruling, lawyers for both sides told reporters Wednesday it had gone against Pinochet. The general's problem is that, stripped of his power, he's no longer of much importance to any sector of Chilean society, and prosecuting him no longer appears likely to generate the catastrophic backlash of which his supporters once warned.
Suharto's brutal 32-year reign ended two years ago, when the army that had kept him in power ordered him to step down in the face of economic collapse and social tumult. But the military also facilitated Suharto's departure by guaranteeing him immunity from prosecution. But like Pinochet, Suharto may be a victim of the shifting balance of power, although the balance hasn't shifted quite as far in Indonesia, which is still beset by ethnic violence and fierce infighting among both the political and military elites and that's worked to Suharto's advantage. Even if convicted on corruption charges, he's already been guaranteed a pardon by the beleaguered President Abdurrahman Wahid, in a sign of the tenuous balance of forces in a country where politicians still live dangerously. The ritual humiliation of Suharto through a trial without punishment may even be a safety valve to protect Wahid from pressure to pursue military leaders for past human rights abuses. Still, Suharto has no enthusiasm for the ritual, and is professing illness.
The message of Pinochet and Suharto's plight is plain to see for all who rule by force: As long as you're holding the guns, people will cut you a deal, but if you've committed crimes against humanity, don't expect them to keep their end of the bargain once you've lost your power. In other words, tyrants planning on retirement are well advised to take some acting classes and work on doing a believable senile dementia.