Pinochet Faces Charges

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General Augusto Pinochet has accepted political responsibility for the atrocities committed by his military junta. Now he may be forced to take personal responsibility. Less than a week after Pinochet issued a statement spun by his handlers as an acceptance of political responsibility for crimes committed by the armed forces during his 17-year reign, a Chilean judge on Friday charged Pinochet with kidnapping. The general is expected to be placed under house arrest shortly, and to go to court to answer charges arising out of the 1973 "caravan of death" — the series of incidents in which some 70 political detainees were abducted while in captivity in the weeks following Pinochet's seizure of power, and were never seen again. Pinochet faces 177 criminal complaints in his home country arising out of the kidnapping, torture and murder of more than 3,000 Chileans opposed to his military regime and has thus far evaded prosecution only on the grounds of his ailing health.

Judge Juan Guzman's announcement Friday is a sign of how far the political tides in Chile have turned against Pinochet. Ever since he allowed the restoration of democracy, conventional wisdom has held that the former dictator was beyond the reach of the Chilean courts. He'd created an umbrella immunity from prosecution for himself as one of his preconditions for handing over power to civilians, and it was widely assumed that the military that had ruled Chile at gunpoint for 17 years would not tolerate civilians putting their erstwhile leader on trial. Even when Pinochet was arrested in Britain in 1998 following an extradition request by a Spanish judge, the assumption was that the general would have to be tried in Europe because the Chilean authorities were either politically or legally unable to press charges. But the 18 months the strongman spent under house arrest in Britain may have finally laid to rest Chileans' fears of their erstwhile dictator.

The military made a show of welcoming Pinochet home last March after he'd managed to persuade Britain to release him on the grounds of his fading physical and mental capacities. But the generals were castigated by the country's Socialist party government, and prosecution may have become inevitable once the Supreme Court in August stripped Pinochet of his immunity. After all, the country is now a stable democracy and getting on rather nicely without the general, and the military is unlikely to risk instability by going out of its way to protect Pinochet from prosecution. All the general may have going for him now is the fact that he's 84 years old and his faculties are failing.