Pinochet’s arrest could break ground in human rights law
Pinochet’s arrest could break ground in human rights law
Georgina Ocaranza’s nightmare began when police smashed open the door other tiny apartment at 2 a.m. on Oct. 5,1975. She was pregnant, but her captors ignored her pleas for mercy and dragged her off. Ocaranza was working for a group in Santiago, Chile, that was trying to locate some of the thousands of people who disappeared in 1973 when a coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet toppled the Marxist government of Salvador Allende. The days following her arrest were filled with terror. During her six months in prison, electrodes were attached to her genitals and she was told that her unborn child would be killed. Ocaranza, who now lives in Toronto, never expected justice. But British police, acting on a Spanish warrant accusing Pinochet of genocide, terrorism and murder, arrested the former dictator in London on Oct. 16. Last week, the charges against him were expanded amid growing international demands that he be brought to trial. Said an overjoyed Ocaranza: “We have been waiting for so long.”
The arrest of the 82-year-old exstrongman immediately opened old wounds in Chile. As the Santiago government demanded his return, riots broke out that threatened the country’s fragile democracy. Pinochet, who entered Britain on a diplomatic passport to undergo back surgery, had felt safe enough to visit with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. But the following day, he was suddenly arrested at a private London clinic by British police who were acting on a warrant filed by Baltasar Garzón, an aggressive Spanish magistrate known as “Superjudge.” He wants Pinochet extradited to Spain to face trial for offences involving the disappearance and possible murder of 200 people, most of them Chileans but including several Spaniards.
The Spanish Supreme Court may yet rule that Garzón has no authority to extradite Pinochet. Even so, Chilean exiles living in Britain plan to bring their own charges against Pinochet, while a growing number of British MPs from all parties have demanded that he be tried in Britain under the Criminal Justice Act for torture. His arrest also received support from other major European governments, including France and Germany. In the United States, which could be embarrassed if its role in the 1973 coup is examined closely, 36 Democratic members of
Congress urged President Bill Clinton to help bring Pinochet to trial. And despite a public plea for his release from Thatcher— who was grateful for the Chilean leader’s help during the 1982 Falklands War with neighboring Argentina—British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that law, not politics, would prevail. “Pinochet,” said Blair, “is being held under judicial procedures.”
Pinochet had gained control of the Chilean army just a few weeks before the bloody coup. As the military took command, thousands of Allende’s followers were arrested and herded into a football stadium in Santiago where many were tortured and executed. Pinochet also launched Operation Condor to hunt down communists and other leftists. His assassins even reached beyond Chile’s borders. In all, according to a report compiled in 1991 by the Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 3,197 people were murdered or disappeared.
Implementing his so-called authoritarian
democracy, Pinochet in 1978 granted amnesty to all those involved in the coup. In 1988, he held a referendum asking to extend his term in office. Despite the country’s strong economic performance, however, he lost the vote. He agreed to hold elections, and in 1990 a civilian government took over. In return for allowing democratic reforms, Pinochet was named to the country’s senate for life.
The uneasy truce has been shattered by his arrest. Leftist and rightwing protesters clashed daily in the streets last week. Pinochet’s supporters attacked the Spanish and British embassies in Santiago. Some Chileans worried that the country’s fledgling democracy, led by centrist President Eduardo Frei, could collapse if the fighting increases.
But the country’s military showed no signs of intervening. Michael Radu, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, says the army has become less political under the leadership of Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, and is unlikely to threaten the civilian government. Moreover, some officials in Chile believe that if Pinochet is tried abroad, it may finally reconcile the country to the events of 1973. “Pinochet’s trial could be extraordinarily positive,” said Sergio Aguilo, a Socialist party member of congress. “It would bring Chile into step with the rest of world.” Whether that reconciliation will occur depends on Garzón’s ability to bring Pinochet to justice. The judge sprang to prominence in 1988 during his investigations into the Spanish government’s own dirty war against Basque terrorists. His struggle to extradite Pinochet will pit the general’s questionable claim for diplomatic immunity—despite his diplomatic passport, he was not formally accredited—against a growing body of international human rights law that suggests leaders who commit atrocities can be tried by third-party countries.
Louis Sohn, a professor of international law at George Washington University in Washington, notes that former Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos was successfully sued for human rights abuses by Filipinos in the United States once he flew to exile in Hawaii in 1986. Panama’s former leader, Gen. Manuel Noriega, was forcibly brought to the United States and sentenced to 40 years in jail on drug-smuggling charges in 1992. And key Bosnian Serb officials, including former leader Radovan Karadzic, would be arrested as accused war criminals the moment they step across their border. If such precedents hold, the ailing Pinochet may never see his own borders again.
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