Pinochet's 'Technical' Victory Sets Up New Battles

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Chile's supreme court on Wednesday threw out an indictment and arrest order against General Augusto Pinochet. Does this end efforts in Chile to prosecute the former dictator?

"No, not at all. In fact, this ruling was simply a technicality. The court threw out the indictment on the grounds that Judge Juan Guzman had not first interrogated Pinochet before issuing it, as required by Chilean law. The judge had argued that he'd sent Pinochet a questionnaire when the general was being held under house arrest in London, and although Pinochet hadn't answered any of the questions, he'd returned the questionnaire with the comment "I am innocent of all charges against me." Guzman had taken that to be a deposition, but many other lawyers said it didn't count, because it came at the wrong time of the investigation. So it was not surprising that the court threw this out. But the court has, in effect, simply ordered the judge to first interrogate Pinochet before issuing a new indictment."

So, can it be assumed that Judge Guzman will now simply go ahead and interrogate Pinochet, to start the process again?

"Yes, he's bound to, and Pinochet is legally obliged to make himself available. He can't refuse. An interrogation has to take place within 20 days — so he'll probably try to see the general sometime in January. But there's also the issue of medical checks, which Chilean law requires when someone over 70 is prosecuted. Pinochet is 85, and they are legally bound to check whether he's insane, and whether he can respond to questions. It's a little confusing, because there are so many different cases against Pinochet, and it's not clear whether this issue of medical checks will delay things."

So even if the current case fails to stick, there are more charges against Pinochet?

"Many more. The current indictment concerns the question of whether Pinochet is responsible for the kidnapping and murder of some 70 people in the 'Caravan of Death' in 1973 [an episode in which senior military officers toured the country removing Pinochet opponents from prisons and summarily executing them]. But there are more than 200 charges against Pinochet working their way through the legal system. So even as they rule on this, the courts are receiving more evidence relating to other cases."

What political impact is the prosecution of Pinochet having in Chile?

"It certainly creates some political tension, particularly between the military and government. But President Lagos has handled the matter skillfully, saying over and over that the matter is in the hands of the judicial system, and that his government will accept whatever the courts decide. If you read between the lines, it's unlikely that Pinochet will ever actually face trial. The medical checks and interrogations obviously touch the once untouchable general, and the military doesn't like this. But they also know nothing is actually happening to the general. Even if he's under house arrest, it's not as if he leaves his house much anyway. But for the human rights activists, pressing these cases against Pinochet even though he'll never actually go to jail serves a purpose — it's a way of putting him and his regime on trial without actually forcing him to go to court.