Now It's Chile's Turn to Ponder Over Pinochet

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Chile remains unlikely to try General Augusto Pinochet, but the very fact that the matter is even being considered signals how far the country has come since the general ruled by decree. Judge Juan Guzman on Monday formally asked a Chilean court to strip the former dictator of his congressional immunity, allowing him to be tried on some 66 indictments arising from the death or disappearance of 72 Chileans in the days following Pinochet's coup in 1973. The case revolves around the notorious "Caravan of Death," in which a group of military officers — on Pinochet's orders, according to prosecutors — toured Chile, dragging political prisoners earmarked for elimination out of detention centers and summarily executing them. Legal experts agree that the challenge to Pinochet's immunity will take months, if not years, and is far from certain to succeed. But Socialist party president-elect Ricardo Lagos has vowed to let nothing interfere with due process in the case. After all, his party had challenged Britain's arrest of the general on the grounds that it undermined Chilean sovereignty, arguing that Chile was the proper place for Pinochet to be tried.

Lagos's government certainly won't be feeling particularly sympathetic to the general, and not only because of matters past. It had pressed Britain to release Pinochet because of his supposedly failing health, only to be embarrassed by the spectacle of the general all but bounding out of his wheelchair on his arrival in Santiago. More ominous, of course, was the welcoming committee of Chile's top brass, including the commander-in-chief, welcoming their former leader with a guard of honor comprising hundreds of heavily armed special forces troops and a statement of "permanent support and solidarity." But while the generals may growl at legal proceedings, they're unlikely to bite — there are enough legal obstacles in place to make a trial unlikely. For the much-changed country, there could even be some benefit — drawn-out courtroom challenges keep Pinochet and his supporters on the defensive and allow Chile to revisit his legacy without threatening social instability.