Pinochet's Lame Excuse: The Underlings Did It

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There's a palpable sense of fear in General Augusto Pinochet these days. Not that the former Chilean dictator will ever know the terror of the thousands of his countrymen his regime tortured to death in prison cells, or tossed screaming from aircraft high over the ocean. The fear Pinochet knows is the anxiety of the former strongman discarded by history and forced to face justice; to account for himself stripped of his uniform and the power to inflict unimaginable pain on others.

To be sure, Pinochet's life over the past three years has been a miserable story of unending flight — from legions of prosecutors the world over determined to bring him to book for crimes he is alleged to have authored. And his fight to evade prosecution appears to have taken its toll on the 85-year-old general, who only last weekend spent a night in the hospital after suffering what doctors called a "mini stroke."

That didn't stop Judge Juan Guzman from issuing an arrest warrant for Pinochet on Monday, ordering that he be placed under house arrest on charges relating to the notorious "Caravan of Death" campaign shortly after the general seized power in 1973. The campaign involved a group of Pinochet's top officers touring the country's military prisons, rounding up some 57 political detainees, and summarily executing them. (And these charges constitute but one case of more than 200 pending against the general.)

Judge Guzman had previously ordered General Pinochet's arrest, but that order had been overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality — Judge Guzman had failed to interrogate the suspect before indicting him, as required by Chilean law. Last week the judge set about rectifying his error by subjecting General Pinochet to an interview. And the general's answers to the judge's questions may contain some clues as to his likely fate.

When Judge Guzman handed Pinochet an official military document from 1973 listing a number of detainees executed on the orders of the commander in the chief of the army, Pinochet responded: "I am not a criminal. Anyway, those in charge of the [judicial] processes, of the detainees, were the commanders of the different garrisons."

Judge Guzman followed up by asking, then, if when he learned of the excesses committed during the officers' tour, he took any action, to which Pinochet replied that those in charge of the detainees' fate had been the commanders of the garrisons where they'd been held.

Judge Guzman: "Did you give orders for people to be executed during General Arellano and his delegation's travels to different cities in 1973?"

General Pinochet: "For me to remember everything now is impossible. I myself never ordered any executions. There was an order from the government junta which said that shots could only be fired in self-defense."

Judge Guzman: "Did you ever give orders to the effect that the bodies of those who died on that occasion should not be returned to their families?"

General Pinochet: "If that happened, it was because the bodies were often reclaimed by their own relatives. In other cases, because they were terrorists and were undocumented, identification was difficult — nobody knew where the bodies were because they weren't claimed."

And so on. It was a brief but telling interview. The sort of gibberish offered up by Pinochet in answer to specific charges might charitably be imagined as the playing out of his legal defense strategy of pleading senile dementia so as to evade his day in court. But there's something else in those answers. Something particularly disturbing to the Chilean military, whose leaders have by and large stood by Pinochet through his legal ordeal.

Last November, in an event marking his 85th birthday, Pinochet made a widely reported speech in which he accepted political responsibility for the excesses committed by the armed forces during his 17-year reign. And yet in his answers to Judge Guzman, Pinochet was not exactly heroic. In fact, it looks an awful lot like the man who'd headed the junta was trying to shift responsibility back down the chain of command, to the officers in charge of those garrisons visited by the "Caravan of Death." And, of course, the military is having none of it. They've always relied on the Nuremberg defense — "just following orders." Pinochet had for years maintained that his regime had done nothing to be ashamed of. When the evidence contradicted that, Pinochet's birthday speech was spun by his own family as an acceptance of political responsibility for the actions of the junta. So to hear the general blaming his subordinates for the crimes of which he's been charged won't go down well in the ranks. Indeed, it may sully Pinochet's reputation even among the men in uniform for whom his honor was once unimpeachable. Whether or not he ever sees the inside of a courtroom, the trial — and even the punishment — of Augusto Pinochet has already begun.