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Lifting Pinochet Immunity Sends Message to Human Rights Abusers  - 2004-09-01

A Chilean judge will question former dictator Augusto Pinochet next week about political killings that took place during his 17-year grip on power in the 1970s and 1980s. Chile's Supreme Court recently lifted the former general's immunity from prosecution, a major step toward bringing him to trial.

The ruling that lifts Augusto Pinochet's immunity cannot be appealed. It will force the retired general to face legal proceedings he has managed to evade for years because of his political immunity or his competence to stand trial.

The 88-year-old former Chilean ruler has been charged with war crimes in connection with a campaign, known as "Operation Condor," in which several South American dictatorships sought to suppress political opponents. More than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared during his rule from 1973 to 1990.

Mark Enselaco directs the Human Rights Program at the University of Dayton in Ohio and has written two books on the Pinochet era and the war crimes that occurred in Chile during those years. He says General Pinochet managed to create an aura of "untouchability" for himself that he thought would last even after he left office.

"Pinochet is really a case study in impunity," he said. "He created a climate of terror that put him beyond the reach of the law. He rewrote the law amnestying himself. He became senator for life, he thought would put himself beyond prosecution. He loaded the judicial system. He has deep reservoirs of admiration, 20-30 percent of the population think he did a great thing and think he should not be touched."

The court has also judged Mr. Pinochet mentally competent to stand trial. The decision was made after he gave two media interviews that highlighted his lucid state of mind.

General Pinochet used the argument of his mental state to avoid extradition from Britain to Spain in 1998. Using the claim of universal jurisdiction under international human rights laws, a Spanish judge sought Mr. Pinochet's prosecution for the murder of several Spanish nationals during his campaign against political dissidents. Victims' families in Belgium and France also filed separate lawsuits.

Mr. Enselaco explains the more aggressive recent attitude of Chile's judiciary by saying it is trying to correct injustices that occurred in the past.

"Why should Pinochet be prosecuted?" he asks. "Because there are countless individuals whose grief is profound and whose life was destroyed by this man and they deserve justice in a court of law."

Mr. Enselaco says the ruling against Augusto Pinochet sends a powerful message beyond Chile's borders. Mr. Pinochet now joins the ranks of other former rulers being pursued for crimes against humanity, notably the former leaders of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Iraq.

Ian Seiderman, legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, attributes the more aggressive pursuit of war criminals to the growing political will to prosecute crimes against humanity, not just document them.

"This prosecution and the whole international tribunal movement which the courts established for Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the international criminal court, are all signs that point out human rights abuses and dictators that they cannot just fade into the woodwork, that they will be pursued and prosecuted," he said.

Mr. Seiderman sees the tougher approach to war crimes evolving from an initial reluctance to interfere in what belatedly were revealed as ethnic-cleansing campaigns or massacres like the Cambodian killing fields, Rwanda massacres or Serb campaigns against minorities.

"I think in the one sense the lack of international political will to confront the Yugoslav and Rwanda situations when they occurred in the 1990s actually helped lead to the establishment of the courts, because the courts were seen as a gesture so the international community could be seen to be doing something without direct military interference," he adds. "And it was thought at the time it would not fly, but they have been quite successful and they provided the impetus which led to the international criminal court."

The International War Crimes Tribunal is currently trying Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes committed during his reign in the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Seiderman says the world court and legal rulings like those in the Pinochet case are a clear message to state leaders who abuse human rights that they are no longer beyond the reach of the law.