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Chile on trial

Torture charges against former dictator Augusto Pinochet may force the country to confront its past.

October 31, 2006

VILLA GRIMALDI, in a suburb of Santiago, Chile, was where in the mid-1970s enemies of dictator Augusto Pinochet were sent to disappear. Thousands of his political opponents -- including Chile's current president, Michelle Bachelet -- were interned and tortured there by the secret police; many were never seen outside its walls again.

On Monday, the 90-year-old Pinochet was placed under house arrest for allegedly ordering the horrific human rights abuses that took place at Villa Grimaldi. It was his fifth arrest since 1998, but this is the first time he has been indicted on torture charges. Pinochet is in poor health, is believed to suffer from mild dementia and has repeatedly been ruled unfit to stand trial. But a judge has determined that Chile's ex-ruler is fit to face justice in this case.

Whatever happens in these proceedings, it is clear that Pinochet, at this late stage in his life, is unlikely to be held accountable for his actions. What is more dismaying is the degree to which many in Chile continue to defend the general's brutal actions when he ran the country from 1973 to 1990.

Indeed, it has taken accusations of financial improprieties to taint Pinochet, once hailed as an austerity-embracing, selfless anti-communist, in the eyes of Chilean conservatives. Reports in recent years that the general had stashed millions of dollars in a secret account at Washington-based Riggs Bank were more devastating to his legacy, bizarrely enough, than the illegal disappearance of thousands of dissidents.

Last week, documents allegedly showing that Pinochet had stashed nine tons of gold valued at $160 million in a Hong Kong bank were dismissed as cheap forgeries. But the episode may be another distressing sign of how even Pinochet's opponents feel as though they need to accuse him of corruption in order to forge a consensus against him. We can only hope that the latest round of proceedings against Pinochet will allow some of his victims to testify against him, and thus may offer up a mirror for all of Chilean society to come to terms with its dark past.

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