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.