Reported by Cynthia Arnson

At a January 14 seminar sponsored by the Center's Latin American Program, Chilean law professor José Zalaquett argued that the effect of General Augusto Pinochet's arrest on the Chilean nation has been largely salutory. Although the case had initially polarized Chile, re-igniting old passions between supporters and opponents of the former dictator, it has helped to inaugurate a new era of openness about the past, Zalaquett maintained.

General Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. He came to power in a coup that toppled the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. Subsequently, Pinochet's military government waged a campaign of brutal repression against its opponents. But while many Chileans hailed Pinochet as a hero for having rescued his country from the threat of Communism, opposition to his dictatorship mounted. Pinochet lost a national referendum on his leadership in 1988, after which democratic elections were held that brought to power a civilian government led by Patricio Aylwin. In October 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London on a warrant from Spain requesting his extradition on charges of human rights abuses between 1973 and 1990. Before being extradited to Spain, however, he was judged by a group of British doctors as being too ill to stand trial.

Zalaquett was part of the "truth commission" appointed by President Aylwin in 1990 to investigate abuses by the Pinochet government. According to Zalaquett, the commission documented 2,000 political executions and 1,200 disappearances, carried out mostly between 1973 and 1977 and masterminded by Pinochet's secret police. Thus far, only the remains of about 200 people who disappeared at that time have been identified. The military's 1978 self-amnesty, as well as other constitutional provisions enshrining Pinochet's power, limited the ability of civilians to bring the military to justice following the democratic transition of 1990. But Chile's truth commission was able to reveal the truth about a denied past, Zalaquett argued. The official acknowledgment of abuses by President Aylwin was an important act in the moral reconstruction of Chilean society.

Although some Chileans have regretted the reopening of old wounds with Pinochet's arrest, Zalaquett claimed that the general mood of the country over the past decade has changed. A new generation of judges, appointed during the ten years of democratic rule since 1990, has been actively pursuing investigations of human rights cases on the grounds that disappearances constitute an ongoing crime not subject to the 1978 amnesty.

Zalaquett reported that politicians on the right have sought to distance themselves from Pinochet and his legacy, while members of the military are "seeking to enter into the modern world" by participating in a government-initiated dialogue that could yield new information on victims of disappearance and provide the first acknowledgment by the armed forces of their role in abusive practices. According to Zalaquett, if returned to Chile, Pinochet would probably face a move to strip him of his honorary position as Senator-for-life, even if he never lands behind bars.

But despite feeling optimistic about the mood of reform in his country, Zalaquett also felt the Pinochet case had been mishandled by the Chilean leadership. He criticized the outgoing government of President Eduardo Frei for giving Pinochet an official mission when he traveled to Britain for back surgery, thereby seeming to embrace the impunity he had long enjoyed and turning his problems with international law and justice into the problems of the democratic government.

Further, Zalaquett said that the Chilean foreign service had underestimated the risk of Pinochet's travel abroad, given that much was known about Judge Garzón's efforts to bring the general to justice under international treaties, including the Torture Convention which Chile ratified in 1988. Finally, according to Zalaquett, the Chilean government committed a technical error in not informing Great Britain of Pinochet's official capacity when he traveled there for medical treatment in 1998.

Zalaquett, who is noted in particular for his work in human rights law, stressed that the Pinochet case has set an important precedent for international law -- this even if, as it now seems likely, General Pinochet will not stand trial due to health reasons. The case upholds the principle of universal jurisdiction for human rights crimes and underscores that diplomatic immunity does not shield former heads of state from criminal prosecution, Zalaquett said.