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Justice at last nips at Pinochet’s heels

The arrest of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, provides a glimmer of hope to those who have known oppression and torture: hope that the world will continue to pursue justice, however imperfectly, even years after the crimes.

It is a heartening message because so much blood has been shed, so many lives broken and, in the Latin American context of the late 20th century, so many persons “disappeared” under brutal regimes that appear above the law.

Pinochet came to power in a bloody coup in 1973. More than 3,000 people were shot in the streets or kidnapped, never to be seen again, during his 17-year dictatorship. Pinochet’s crimes take on added significance for Americans since the United States played a pivotal role in aiding the coup that brought Pinochet to power and ousted the leftist president, Salvador Allende, who had been elected in 1970. Allende died in the takeover.

That fact raises some sticky questions for Americans about how international law is applied and about U.S. culpability for its support of regimes that could easily come under similar scrutiny for gross human rights violations. But those are longstanding questions. The United States has never settled on how powerful international law should be, except in those cases where the U.S. government would benefit. When hauled before international legal bodies in the past -- for instance, during the Reagan administration for crimes alleged against Nicaragua -- the United States simply ignored the charges and demeaned the international court’s authority.

The 82-year-old Pinochet was arrested Oct l6. at a London clinic where he had gone for surgery. The charges that are the basis for the arrest were brought by Judge Baltasar Garzón of Spain, who has been conducting investigations into the military regimes in Argentina and Chile for a number of years. Pinochet has reportedly vowed to fight extradition to Spain for trial.

Whatever the outcome of the expected international legal wrangling, it is a promising first step that could lead to the old dictator’s finally being held accountable for the horrible crimes of torture, killing and disappearances that wracked Chile while he held the country in the grip of terror.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998