Cyberceci in Vancouverland

What am I still doing here? Read and find out...

Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

I studied Journalism in Chile and have a Master of Journalism at The University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada. My dream? To be the first correspondent on the moon, where I plan to go as soon as I can.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

More on Pinochet (For my English speaking friends)

Pinochet stripped of political prestige

Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former military dictator, was left an isolated and pathetic figure this week, facing the prospect of spending his last days fighting to avoid a trial for human rights abuses.

His lawyers filed a last-minute appeal on Monday, sparing him the humiliation of house arrest after a judge charged him with human rights abuses. But legal experts say the stalling tactic may only last a few days, after which Gen Pinochet could find himself stripped of his freedom.

José Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean and director of US-based Human Rights Watch, believes the decision carries unprecedented weight in Chile's struggle to overcome the legacy of its former military government.

"This is the most tangible evidence that the country's transition to a full democracy is moving forward." A few years ago, such a decision would have been unthinkable."

Indeed, until recently many Chileans were prepared to overlook - if not forgive - the excesses committed under Gen Pinochet's regime between 1973 and 1990. While human rights groups have long insisted that the dictatorship was responsible for the systematic murders of 3,000 people, Chileans are also aware that it was responsible for setting the country on its successful export-led development path.

So what has changed? After all, Pinochet has been under investigation for years, and was detained in London in 1998 on an international arrest warrant after Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish judge, accused him of committing crimes against humanity.

Political analysts say public opinion has swung markedly in favour of prosecuting the former dictator since US Senate investigators published a report in July detailing secret US bank accounts belonging to the general and his wife. The accounts, held at Riggs Bank in the US, contained at least $8m, according to the investigators.

As a human rights lawyer in Santiago put it: "That discovery killed off the popular belief that Pinochet's dictatorship had been generally free of corruption - and with it the regime's claim that it was working for the good of the country."

So when Judge Juan Guzmán charged Pinochet on Monday with in connection with the disappearance of nine Chileans and the murder of another, there was barely a whimper from the former dictator's one-time supporters. The country's armed forces guarded a telling silence.

Judge Guzmán's investigations have made him into a recognised and much-respected figure in Chile. His relentless energy in unearthing the horrors of the past were captured neatly two months ago in images of him hauling iron girders from the Pacific Ocean just north of Santiago. Sporting a baseball cap to protect him from the fierce midday sun, Mr Guzmán said the girders were vital evidence of the military's systematic abuses: they had been used to weigh down political opponents before tossing them into the sea.

Mr Guzmán has not always enjoyed a reputation as a defender of human rights. Indeed, before taking on the Pinochet investigations in the late 1990s, he was little more than another faceless appeals court judge.

He was also a highly conservative one. A highly religious man and the son of a well-known Chilean poet, Mr Guzmán voted in favour of upholding a plea from the country's religious right to ban the film The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. The ban was enforced to protect the honour of Jesus Christ and the Catholic church.

Experts say Mr Guzman became increasingly dedicated to defending human rights as his meticulous investigations began to reveal the systematic atrocities carried out by the military in its zeal to wipe out any opposition movements.

The charges brought against Gen Pinochet this week are a case in point. The former leader stands accused of kidnapping nine Chileans as well as murdering Ruiter Enrique Correa, a Communist and newspaper seller whose kiosk in Santiago served as an information-swapping centre for leftwing sympathisers.

The crimes were allegedly committed between 1976 and 1977 as part of Operation Condor, a plan drawn up by South America's military governments to share information and carry out joint operations aimed at eliminating any opposition. All nine kidnap victims were detained outside Chile. They are still missing.

Whether Pinochet will ever stand trial - on these charges or in connection with other parallel investigations - is still open to question. The 89-year-old general suffers deteriorating health and has so far managed to avoid court on the grounds that he is mentally infirm.

Some even doubt whether Mr Guzman's conclusion on Monday that the former dictator is mentally capable and that he should answer for the crimes levelled against him will ultimately force him into the dock. The country currently has two criminal codes, and each has different - and confusing - definitions of mental illness.

But whether Gen Pinochet goes on trial or not, experts say this week's events confirm the political death of the former military dictator. As Mr Vivanco says: "What little prestige Pinochet still had in Chile has now been totally blown apart. It is the beginning of a new era."

Chech also

and "Ex-ruler found competent"


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