No place to hide

The arrest of the brutal ex-dictator Pinochet marks the first time since Nuremberg that a head of state faces legal responsibility for his mass killings.


Bruce Shapiro
October 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

When General and Senator-for-Life Augusto Pinochet was arrested on a Spanish warrant in his London hospital bed this week, his lawyer announced that he would appeal Pinochet's extradition in both Madrid and Great Britain. The lawyer, Michale Caplan, made his statement without irony -- even though among the crimes Pinochet is charged with in Spain is ordering the gunpoint "extradition" of Spanish citizens in Chile to Argentine death squads. The general now seeks appeals he never granted individuals like the great songwriter Victor Jara, whose hands were shattered by torturers' rifle butts and who was shot in a summary execution by Pinochet's soldiers in the Santiago soccer stadium during the general's 1973 coup: just one among still-uncounted thousands of Chileans and foreigners brutalized and massacred during Pinochet's 25 years in power.

For anyone who came of political age later than the 1970s, it may be difficult to appreciate the transcontinental emotions evoked by Pinochet's arrest. An elderly ex-dictator is served with an extradition warrant on his hospital bed. So what? But Pinochet was not just any dictator, and this is not just any arrest -- indeed, Pinochet's arrest may be in its own way as significant as his long and violent rule of Chile.

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In 1970, Chileans elected moderate socialist Salvador Allende Gossens as president of the oldest constitutional republic in Latin America. With the Vietnam War still raging, with Richard Nixon in the White House and with the only other Marxist government in the American hemisphere headed by dictator Fidel Castro in Cuba, the democratic election of Allende, with his humane agenda, became a radical touchstone. "It was our high-water mark," writes journalist Marc Cooper, who after being thrown out of the California state college system by Gov. Ronald Reagan went to work for Allende as a translator. But it was a short-lived dream. On Sept. 4, 1973, after months of unrest bankrolled by the CIA, the Chilean military, under Pinochet, took power, bombing the presidential palace and arresting thousands. Allende committed suicide during the coup.

Pinochet's coup was in its way as much a touchstone as Allende's election: As Cooper has written, in its sustained brutality, the Pinochet dictatorship was the prototype for the coups and death-squad regimes that over the next few years held sway in El Salvador, Guatemala, East Timor and elsewhere. Pinochet enjoyed such support from the United States that in 1976, he felt bold enough to send secret police agents to Washington to assassinate former Allende aide Orlando Letelier. And the Chicago-School free-market nostrums imposed by Pinochet on Chile's mixed economy were a touchstone of another sort: the first experiment in the radical "shock therapy" model later applied by Margaret Thatcher in Britain, favored by Reagan for the United States and gleefully imposed by comfortable American economic theorists across Eastern Europe, with results visible in Russia today.

Yet if Pinochet's 1973 coup was a political watershed, in a strange turn of historical fortune his arrest, at age 82, now seems to mark a quantum step forward for human rights law. His detention marks the first time since Nuremberg that a head of state faces legal responsibility for the crimes committed in his name. This is neither an extension of a government's power beyond its boundaries -- like the famous Israeli kidnapping of Adolph Eichmann -- nor the sort of rough justice meted out to Anastasio Somoza, the former Nicaraguan dictator who was blown up after he fled the Sandinistas in 1979. The process now under way in Spain -- where Judges Baltasar Garzon and Manuel Garcia Castellon charged Pinochet Tuesday with genocide and terrorism in addition to the murders of Spaniards -- is a systematic judicial process to hold a criminal accountable.

This orderly process is possible in part because the laws of Spain and other European countries allow crime victims to be represented by their own lawyers in criminal trials. It is the families of Pinochet's Spanish victims, backed up by human rights groups like Amnesty International, that have pushed Spain's courts over several years for the investigations now bearing fruit. And the laws of Western European countries allow charges to be brought against anyone, anywhere in the world, who commits crimes against their respective nationals -- an idea the United States has only begun to incorporate through recent anti-terrorism laws.

The Pinochet case is also possible because of legal arguments carefully crafted over the last decade by human rights lawyers in the United States. In 1991, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York decided to take advantage of a new law, the Alien Tort Claims Act, permitting people harmed by foreign governments to file civil suit in U.S. Courts. CCR took on the case of Salvadorans and Guatemalans murdered at the behest of those nations' military leaders. In the course of the suits -- which CCR won -- attorney Peter Weiss argued that certain state crimes are so heinous that "those who commit them find no sanctuary in national boundaries," as Weiss' colleague Michael Ratner told me this week. In other words, a thug like Pinochet is an enemy of all humanity, who can be prosecuted or sued wherever the legal system allows victims access to the courts.

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More than anything else, what's changed is the role of human rights groups, now actively pushing governments like Spain to pursue genocide prosecutions. Those governments, in turn, are turning to the international arena -- whether through vehicles like the European Union's extradition and human rights treaties or the proposed International Court for Human Rights, which the Clinton administration has been working assiduously to water down. Human rights advocacy -- once confined to postcard writing, lobbying and the occasional embassy picket -- has gone global, slowly building a body of legal precedent across national boundaries.

Whether Augusto Pinochet will ever stand in the dock for his manifold barbaric crimes remains to be seen. Spain's government has yet to officially approve the extradition warrant; British Home Secretary Jack Straw must approve the extradition and the case faces appeal up to the House of Lords. British newspapers report that the U.S. State Department is quietly working to squelch Pinochet's extradition, perhaps for fear of damaging revelations about the U.S. role, or perhaps because the simple precedent of a head of state arrested for human rights crimes by a third country sends shivers down the spines of government apparatchiks of any great power.

But even if Pinochet is never tried, the simple fact that after 25 years he has landed within striking distance of justice has brought relieved and celebratory tears to the eyes of a generation both in and out of Chile, to whom he represented both the betrayal of a dream and the inauguration of a nightmare.


Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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