Why Pinochet May Wish He'd Stayed in England

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General Augusto Pinochet may be fast approaching a meeting with his maker, but many Chileans believe he oughtn't be allowed to die in peace. Although the decision has not yet been made public officially, a number of Chilean sources have indicated that Chile's Supreme Court on Tuesday voted 12-10 to lift the former president's immunity from prosecution, opening the way to a slew of prosecutions for kidnapping, torture, murder and other human rights violations during the general's 17-year dictatorship. Pinochet eluded a court date in Spain earlier this year when the British government ruled he was too ill to stand trial, and sent him home, where the general had presumed the immunity he'd authored as a condition for restoring democracy would protect him from further pursuit.

But Chileans went to the polls during his 18-month absence and returned to power the same Socialist party Pinochet had overthrown in his 1973 coup, and despite the moderation of new president Ricardo Lagos, who was briefly jailed under the dictatorship, his government is quite happy to see Pinochet on the defensive. "For the most part this is simply going through the motions of stripping Pinochet of his immunity and of his glory in order to correct the historical record," says TIME Latin America bureau chief Tim McGirk. "Given his rapidly declining health he's unlikely ever to make it to trial."

The big question mark over any attempt to pursue Pinochet has always been the reaction of the Chilean military, whose leadership remains supportive of its former commander in chief. "While the Lagos government is quite happy to see the courts going after the former dictator, a few weeks ago the heads of the different branches of the armed forces met with Pinochet to publicly offer their support. While a substantial part of the military would like to forget Pinochet and move on, there are still elements who believe what the dictatorship did was necessary to root out communists." But even if they growl a little, Chile's generals are not expected to bite. "Short of overthrowing the government again, which they're very unlikely to attempt, the military is unlikely to have much leverage over Pinochet's fate," says McGirk. His best hopes, once again, are the doctors, since the Chilean judges' decision rests on the proviso that he be examined to establish his fitness to stand trial. But given the fact that Chile has a much higher threshold for ruling a suspect unfit to stand trial, General Pinochet may find that he'd have been better off remaining in Britain.