Pinochet Slows His Pursuers, but Remains on the Defensive

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Pinochet supporters celebrate the termination of the house arrest

General Augusto Pinochet has won a tactical victory, but Chile's former dictator remains in a posture that military men may term "armed retreat." An appeals court judge on Monday dismissed a house arrest order against the former dictator on a technicality — the investigating judge had failed to interrogate Pinochet before issuing the order, as required by Chilean law. Judge Juan Guzman had sent Pinochet a questionnaire during the general 503-day detention in Britain, but it had been returned unanswered. Now the matter will be referred to Chile's Supreme Court, which may rule as early as Thursday.

Although Pinochet supporters proclaimed Monday's decision a victory, eluding arrest on technical grounds does not bode well for the strongman who faces more than 200 criminal complaints in the Chilean courts. Judge Guzman had pressed charges of murder and kidnapping arising out of the "caravan of death," a 1973 campaign in which a group of military officers toured the country rounding up opponents of Pinochet's junta and summarily executing them. The judge's arrest order came as a surprise, since he had previously ordered medical and psychological tests to determine the general's competency to stand trial, and had not been expected to indict Pinochet before the results are received sometime in January.

Despite Monday's slap-down of Judge Guzman, Pinochet's legal road ahead remains blighted. To be sure, he's unlikely to elicit much sympathy from the same Chilean Supreme Court that last August stripped the general of the immunity from prosecution he'd authored for himself as a precondition for stepping down in 1990. Of course it's quite possible that the high court will uphold Monday's technical ruling, but its August decision presumably leaves the field open to Pinochet's accusers to simply keep trying. And that would leave the general's attorneys to fall back on his fading faculties as the grounds for keeping him out of court.

The military that Pinochet commanded from his coup of 1973 until eight years after he'd relinquished power is naturally deeply unhappy about the judicial pursuit of its erstwhile chief. And they've made their unhappiness known by pressuring President Ricardo Lagos into convening the National Security Council, a body created by Pinochet to deal with national crises, in which the military presence is dominant. Still, the council is constitutionally toothless, and Lagos has insisted that he'll hold the meeting only after the high court's ruling, so as to avoid interference in the judicial process. The sad truth for Pinochet may be that the flap sparked by his arrest is nothing approximating a national crisis. Seizing power again is no longer a plausible option for the military in a post-Cold War world, and the indictment of their former leader is simply a product of democracy and an independent judiciary. The most striking thing about the reaction the general's arrest has been how little protest it has provoked — small groups of well-groomed women have rallied to the general's cause, to be sure, but the majority of Chileans appear somewhat indifferent to the fate of the man who imagined himself to be Chile's savior.