Both Impunity and Immunity May Fail Pinochet

19 October 1998
Article

The arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London has opened a new chapter in the fight against the impunity enjoyed by human rights violators in Chile.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

The arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London has opened a new chapter in the fight against the impunity enjoyed by human rights violators in Chile, where activists are also running up against a phonetically - and politically - similar term: immunity. Human rights advocates say the diplomatic immunity that the government of President Eduardo Frei is demanding for Pinochet, who has been under preventive arrest in London since Friday evening, would mean the 'internationalisation' of the impunity he enjoys in Chile. Lawyer Fabiola Letelier, the president of the Committee for Defence of the Rights of the People (CODEPU) in Chile, said Monday that the government's position ran counter to international treaties to which the Chilean state was a signatory. The sister of former foreign minister Orlando Letelier, murdered in Washington in 1976 by Pinochet's secret police, stressed that according to international treaties, individuals implicated in crimes against humanity such as those of which the former dictator is accused cannot enjoy diplomatic immunity.

Pinochet governed Chile from September 1973 to March 1990, during which time 3,197 grave human rights violations were committed, including forced disappearances and murders of opponents of the dictatorship.

Spanish judges Manuel García Castellón and Baltasar Garzón have asked the British judiciary to put the 82-year-old retired general and life senator under arrest, in order to interrogate him in connection with cases brought against him in Spain. In Spanish courts, Pinochet is facing charges of genocide and international terrorism for the deaths of Spanish nationals and people of Spanish descent in Chile, and for coordinated repressive action by the security forces of the military regimes ruling the nations of the Southern Cone of Latin America in the 1970s.

The Pinochet regime had been condemned in the United Nations for human rights violations since 1974. But the dictatorship turned a blind eye to the UN resolutions and continued to harshly crack down on any opposition. In 1978, under US pressure for the murder of Letelier - who served as foreign minister under socialist president Salvador Allende, overthrown in 1973 - the dictatorship sought to clean up its image with an amnesty law that favoured several leftist prisoners, but which mainly operated as a form of self-pardon for the repressive crimes committed by the regime itself. Ten years later, in 1988, Pinochet was defeated in the plebiscite with which he aimed to remain in the presidency until 1997. But on his way out of the presidential palace, he left in place a complex set of mechanisms that ensured a gradual transition to democracy, and remained chief of the army until March this year.

The centre-left Coalition for Democracy, which governed under Patricio Aylwin's leadership from 1990 to 1994 and under Frei since then (until the year 2000), abandoned its campaign promise to repeal the amnesty law. Chile's restored democracy has moved along under the close surveillance of Pinochet and the armed forces, while the families of victims of human rights violations committed up to 1978 have had their hands virtually tied by the impunity decreed by the amnesty law. Organisations of civil society and leftist parties have accused the governments of Aylwin and Frei of a lack of determination to attack the institutions left in place by the dictatorship, and of favouring the impunity enjoyed by Pinochet and his underlings. The only two cases in which justice was meted out were the 1995 sentencing of General Manuel Contreras, head of the dictatorship's secret police, to seven years in prison, and sentences handed down in 1994 to a group of police who abducted and killed three communist militants in 1985.

In 1996, Frei kept the State Defence Council from going ahead with a trial over the illicit transfer of some three million dollars from the army to Pinochet's oldest son. And in April of this year, he criticised an impeachment attempt against Senator Pinochet. The impeachment attempt was voted down in the lower house of parliament by the right-wing lawmakers and Frei's Christian Democratic Party. The vote gave rise to heated protests against the government, which was criticised for providing additional protection to the former dictator, who is already covered by the amnesty law. But the government argued that its decisions facilitated a smooth transition in the army command, a process that concluded successfully - according to Frei - on March 10, when Pinochet stepped down as army chief, as planned, to swear in the next day as senator-for-life. As a member of the legislature, Pinochet has the right to a diplomatic passport, which according to Chilean law grants diplomatic immunity. He used the passport on his trip to Britain, where he was admitted to the London Clinic and underwent surgery for a slipped disc.

Pinochet has been in preventive detention there since Friday, waiting for the British courts to decide whether he is to be interrogated by judges García Castellón and Garzón, who could also request his extradition to Spain. Britain's failure to recognise the former dictator's diplomatic immunity opens - in the words of socialist Deputy Isabel Allende, the daughter of late president Salvador Allende - the possibility, which was closed until now in Chile, of bringing Pinochet to justice. In Chile Pinochet is currently facing 11 cases, filed since last January by the Communist Party, human rights groups and families of victims of the de facto military regime. Judge Juan Guzman, who is presiding over the cases against Pinochet in Chile, said Monday that he could request copies of any testimony Pinochet may give in London, and said he may interrogate the former dictator in Chile in December - if he is back by then.

It is not yet clear just when Pinochet will be able to return home, not only due to his state of health, but also to the 40-day timeframe London has to decide on his possible extradition to Spain.

Copyright 1998 InterPress Service