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January 21, 2000

A panel of British doctors concluded on January 5 that former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, pictured at an earlier hospital visit in Windsor, is unfit to stand trial in Spain on charges of torturing political opponents.
(Russell Boyce/Reuters)

Pinochet's Life Sentence

By Tony Karon, special to

Gen. Augusto Pinochet may never be put on trial, but that doesn't mean he's eluded justice. Britain's expected decision to release him on the grounds of his failing health will restore Pinochet's freedom, but not his dignity. And that's exactly why the 84-year-old former Chilean dictator so fervently rejected the option of pleading for his freedom on compassionate grounds, until it became clear that his only alternative was to face torture charges in a Spanish courtroom.

The October 1998 arrest of the general, whose junta kidnapped, tortured, and murdered more than 3,000 of its political opponents, had been hailed as a milestone in the enforcement of international human rights law. It signaled a new willingness to prosecute across national boundaries, irrespective of immunity deals an accused leader may have extorted from his countrymen. Former dictators everywhere were forced to reconsider their travel plans, and the world's despots and torturers were put on notice that a growing number of governments were prepared to forcibly hold them individually accountable to international human rights standards.

Pinochet had eluded prosecution at home by making immunity part of his price for ending 17 years of military dictatorship. As unpalatable as that immunity may have been to many of Chile's civilian politicians, there was no other way at the time to peacefully march the generals out of the corridors of power and back onto their bases.

And, of course, with both the U.S. and Britain having been firm supporters of the dictatorship, there wasn't likely to be much international support in 1989 for holding the general accountable. Pinochet looked set to get away with a genteel retirement in his desired role of senator for life.

But the activist Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon appeared to have been more alert than Pinochet's travel staff to the possibilities presented by the post-Cold War shift in the West toward center-left governments. Pinochet's arrest, on the basis of an extradition request from Judge Garzon, came as a rude shock that left governments from Washington to Havana reacting with alarm. Deals struck by generals and diplomats were suddenly up for review by upstart prosecutors, and politicians no longer had carte blanche to offer immunity.

Such concerns weren't simply self-serving: Safe passage and immunity from prosecution remain key tools for easing dictators out of power with minimal bloodshed. Would Haitian strongman Baby Doc Duvalier have conceded without a fight if he'd been bound for a Port-au-Prince courtroom rather than retirement on the French Riviera? Would Pinochet and his men have peacefully transferred power to civilians if they thought they could be tried for their crimes? Probably not. And amnesties have been par for the course in countries from El Salvador and Guatemala to South Africa and Cambodia, where ending bloody civil wars has been prioritized over dispensing justice for human rights abuses.

The change in the rules of the immunity game heralded by the Pinochet arrest may have given a few dictators reason to postpone any retirement plans, but advocates of international human rights law counter that while this may be a valid concern, the alternative is impunity. Even while dictators remain in power, those fated to live under their rule are arguably safer if the despots know they'll be held individually accountable.

Pinochet's arrest strengthened the traction of the individual accountability principle as a fact of international political life. Initially, the general had scoffed at the idea of compassionate release. As a former head of state immune from prosecution at home, he claimed his arrest impugned Chile's sovereignty, and his lawyers insisted that British law absolved any former sovereign--even Hitler--of accountability for crimes committed while serving as head of state. That argument was twice rejected by one of the world's more cautious High Court benches. Even if Pinochet now goes home on health grounds, the legal precedent stands.

But has Pinochet's case had a value beyond sounding a warning to his imitators? With prosecution in Chile politically unlikely, Britain's action may have denied Pinochet's victims and their loved ones of the all-important bearing of witness occasioned by a trial. Abuse is made all the more traumatic when its victims are denied the right to remember, and post-Pinochet Chilean society had--until the general's arrest-- imposed a cruel amnesia on those who had suffered at the hands of the dictatorship. A trial is a cathartic moment for people on whom silence has been imposed; it's an affirmation, a bearing of witness to their pain and suffering, a moment that allows a healing process to begin. Confronting their tormentor, now stripped of both the power to hurt them and of the palliatives of political rationalization, and recalling the horrors he perpetrated in all their painful detail can be of immeasurable psychological benefit to those burdened by trauma. Pinochet's victims won't get to confront him in court, although there's been an unprecedented bearing of witness--mostly through the media, both Chilean and international--since his arrest.

No matter what crimes he may be guilty of, Pinochet is unlikely ever to see the inside of a prison cell. But justice--imperfect at the best of times--may well have been served precisely by denying the general the exoneration by the West he so desperately craved. In Pinochet's mind, every head that had ever been cracked by his goons, every torture-riddled corpse tossed into the Pacific Ocean, every child stolen from its doomed leftist parents and handed over to a childless military couple, all of his junta's crimes against the people of Chile had been committed in defense of Western values--ugly but necessary measures to defend democracy and freedom from totalitarian communism.

This involved some twisted logic from a man who'd overthrown a leftist government that had meticulously upheld the constitution of Latin America's oldest democracy, while the general himself turned it into toilet paper--but then the ability to rationalize is an essential skill for those who commit crimes against humanity. Torturers go home at the end of their day to wives and families; they have to create a structure of meaning that sanctions unconscionably sadistic behavior toward their foes and then allows them, only hours later, to read their children a bedtime story. And that leaves them vulnerable to a justice more subtle, yet every bit as harsh, as that dispensed by courts.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not a court of law, and it had no power to punish individuals no matter how heinous the crimes to which they were admitting. And yet there are numerous tales of torturers and assassins breaking down in its sessions or after, being overwhelmed by the weight of their own confession. They are left depressed and anxious, unable to function socially now that their own children knew what they had once done. Stripped of their dignity and acceptability in polite society, the torturers of the past are subject to a justice more profound, perhaps, than any prison could offer, because prisons inevitably cast the prisoner, in his own mind, as a victim.

After 15 months as a prisoner awaiting trial in England, Pinochet's spirit and body are in decline. The arrogant generalissimo will return home diminished and humiliated, shunned by the West as a criminal, the abuses of his regime exposed. And that may be a punishment more profound than any prison term: General Pinochet has been sentenced to live with himself.

Tony Karon is a writer and editor for in New York.

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