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Throw the Book at Pinochet

September 17, 2004

For more than three decades, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator responsible for the death and disappearance of thousands of people, has successfully avoided being brought to justice. His impunity may finally be unraveling. A recent decision by the Chilean Supreme Court to lift Pinochet's immunity has helped raise reasonable hopes that the tyrant will finally go on trial.

Pinochet stands accused of conspiring with other South American dictators to eliminate political opponents through the infamous Operation Condor -- a secret plan created by five military regimes, with the tacit support of the U.S. government, to track and kill dissidents worldwide. One of the victims was former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated in a 1976 car bombing in Washington.

Pinochet seized power through a military coup in 1973 and ruled Chile until 1990. Eight years later, he was arrested in London on a warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzon, charging him with genocide, terrorism and torture, including of Spanish citizens. Garzon asked for Pinochet's extradition to Spain but Britain returned him to Chile, ruling he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Pinochet was immune to prosecution in Chile, part of a deal that allowed him to become "senator for life" upon his leaving office in 1990. The Chilean Supreme Court might have stripped him of that immunity, but instead it went along with the British judges' decision that he was incompetent.

Ironically, it was the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that indirectly revived efforts to prosecute Pinochet. After 9/11, U.S. investigators began looking for secret bank accounts linked to Al Qaeda. In the process they came across an account at Riggs Bank in Washington that belonged to Pinochet, reportedly containing between $8 million and $10 million. Pinochet was actively managing this account, contradicting the notion that he was mentally incapacitated. Further, in November, the 88-year-old ex-dictator granted a television interview in Miami in which he came across as anything but senile. So the Chilean Supreme Court last month ended his immunity.

The court doesn't just want to know about Operation Condor. No one earning a soldier's pay, not even a general, can save $8 million. And Chilean officials would like to know if he has paid taxes on the money.

Chile's newfound political stability has made it possible to try to sentence Pinochet without endangering the country's enormous political, social and economic progress. His victims and the relatives of the dead and "disappeared" deserve to see it happen. The nation's justice system is mature enough to close one of the darkest chapters in Latin American history.

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