Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
21 - 27 December 2000
Issue No.513
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The saga continues

By Hisham El-Naggar

It was not to be. The arrest warrant issued earlier this month for General Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former military strongman, was overturned last Monday by the Santiago Court of Appeals, infuriating civil rights activists the world over. Many had rejoiced that Pinochet, execrated in numerous countries, had finally been subjected to censure in his own country.

In practical terms, most people knew that the arrest warrant was not going to amount to much, but the stunning decision by Judge Juan Guzman Tapia to issue the warrant was a coup of Chilean justice nonetheless. Even if it had been allowed to stand, Pinochet's lawyers would inevitably have sought relief in the medical tests that enabled the former dictator to escape extradition to Spain from England in 1998.

The moral significance of the arrest warrant was immense. Had it been upheld, it would have meant that Pinochet could be judged and subjected to the exigencies of the law in the very country he once ruled. To issue the warrant was thus brave indeed. Judge Guzman was inviting fierce attacks from rightist factions.

The reaction was not long in coming. Many in the armed forces -- still loyal to Pinochet, as not a few of his protégés wield power there -- expressed their uneasiness, going so far as to imply that they would not stand by and see their idol smashed by an overzealous judge. The rule of law? Not an overwhelming concern to those who regard Pinochet as Chile's saviour. Leftists, however, have never forgiven the aging coup-leader for "saving Chile." The discrepancy between die-hard Pinochetists and much of the rest of world (Baroness Thatcher may be the sole, and rather laughable exception) became quite obvious during Pinochet's forced sojourn in the British capital, when he was fighting a legal battle to avoid extradition to Spain on charges of complicity in crimes against humanity.

While relatively few could be prevailed upon to put in a good word for Pinochet, demonstrations were staged in Chile by Pinochet supporters. Though most Chileans were happy to see Pinochet under such duress, it was clear that it was not satisfactory to have Pinochet tried abroad. It was a matter of national pride for many Chileans: if Pinochet was guilty of crimes committed in Chile, no other country had jurisdiction over the case. Not only the Chilean right, but also left-leaning politicians, voiced this view. It is one thing for Pinochet to be tried overseas, and another for him to face justice in Chile itself.

After a brief interlude during which Pinochet arrogantly made fools of those who sent him home as "unfit" to stand trial, the former iron leader was stripped of his immunity as a self-appointed lifelong senator. At this point, the only Chileans inclined to insist that he was above the law were hard-core Pinochetists who regard him as a hallowed figure. And among Chileans, such people -- though quite numerous -- are decidedly outnumbered.

But this is a very powerful and influential minority. It is true that the leading rightist politicians -- notably Jorge Lavin, who narrowly missed beating Socialist Ricardo Lagos as a candidate for president -- have distanced themselves from Pinochet; no reason they should damage their chances by identifying themselves with a period most Chileans prefer to forget. But several high-ranking figures in the armed forces regard the attack on Pinochet as an attack on themselves. And the wrath of such figures is no minor consideration in a country that has suffered under military dictatorship as Chile has.

Nor is fanatical Pinochetism exclusive to the armed forces. Elegantly dressed society matrons and humble citizens who still think there is such a thing as "Red Terror" have participated in demonstrations in support of Pinochet. Pressure was exerted upon President Lagos, who had to cut short a trip abroad to parlay with the angry military insistent on convening the National Security Council. Lagos rightly perceived this as a trap and a humiliating brake on Chile's young but flourishing democracy. Yes, he decreed in a dignified tone, the council could be convened -- but only after the courts have ruled on Pinochet's case. Otherwise, he stated, it would be interfering with the very due process that is the essence of the rule of law.

This is when the Court of Appeals issued its controversial verdict annulling the arrest warrant. Whatever may be thought of such a step, it remains clear that the presidential decision -- and the admirable level-headedness displayed by most Chileans in such critical circumstances -- averted an institutional crisis. Furthermore, the principle that justice was to take its course without explicit interference from pressure groups has been upheld.

The case will continue, although without Pinochet suffering the "indignity" of incarceration, even in the benign form of house arrest. Barbed comments have been heard about Chile having lost an opportunity to confront its past once and for all, with many moaning that the Pinochet affair will drag on inconclusively in the courts. Meanwhile, his many victims will be deprived of seeing him subjected to even a symbolic privation of freedom.

It is hard to blame Chileans for preferring to put the memory of Pinochet behind them. For many Chileans, stability -- an essential ingredient of prosperity -- is too high a price to pay for symbolic justice. For others, living through the pain of having to debate the horrors of the Pinochet years is too terrible a prospect. If formal justice forgets the old ex-dictator, history will not. One day it will pass its verdict on the man, his regime and the philosophy he engendered. And against that verdict, there will be no appeal.

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