- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

SANTIAGO, Chile Britain released former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet Thursday after 16 months of house arrest, as supporters at the headquarters of the Pinochet Foundation in Santiago celebrated with champagne.

But the general's opponents, declaring that he would be returning to a different Chile, promised a new phase in their effort to bring him to justice on human rights violations.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw said Thursday that Gen. Pinochet could not face trial because a medical investigation showed that the 84-year old former general was mentally unfit because he suffered brain damage from two strokes during the past year.

Spain, over the objections of investigating Judge Baltasar Garzon, who initiated the 16 months of legal battles, said it would not appeal.

As Gen. Pinochet flew to Chile on board the Chilean air force plane "The Eagle," which was scheduled to land in Iquique, Chile, late Thursday evening, human rights lawyers here filed court papers calling for the removal of his immunity from prosecution as a Chilean senator for life.

Hugo Guttierez, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, said he was optimistic.

"The economic right and the military have put in place institutions that give Pinochet impunity. It will be very hard to change that," said Mr. Guttierez. "But the courts of Chile are worried about their image abroad, and there may be a chance to make a trial happen."

Gen. Pinochet was scheduled to be flown by helicopter to a military hospital in Santiago early Friday, with his future also enveloped in clouds.

His return to Chile will complicate a human rights agenda in the country that has been making tremendous progress since his arrest in Britain in October 1998. While the general was fighting Judge Garzon's effort to extradite him on charges of torture and crimes against humanity, more than 50 of his former associates had been arrested and detained in Chile on human rights charges.

According to the Rettig Report, a government study done by the 1990-94 Patricio Aylwin government, during the Pinochet regime 3,197 persons were either killed or "disappeared." Thousands more were tortured, and an estimated 50,000 people went into exile.

Many on both the political right and left say that a trial of Gen. Pinochet in Chile once thought unthinkable may now be possible due mainly to the international attention surrounding the case. Public opinion polls also overwhelmingly show that most Chileans are in favor of a Pinochet trial.

"The political conditions exist for a trial," says Isabel Allende, a Chilean congresswoman and the daughter of Salvador Allende, the Socialist president of Chile who died in the bloody 1973 military coup led by Gen. Pinochet.

"This country needs to show that all persons are equal under the law. If there is capacity for the courts to try Pinochet, they need to demonstrate it," she said.

However, there will be hurdles in the way of a Pinochet trial in Chile.

Under Chilean law, if there is clear evidence of crimes, senators can be stripped of their immunity by the Chilean courts. But the courts still contain many appointees of the 17-year Pinochet regime and a vote in favor of removing immunity is not at all assured.

Further, Judge Juan Guzman, the special magistrate investigating most of the more than 60 human rights cases currently lodged against the general, says he will request a mental examination. In Chile, mental illness is grounds for escaping trial.

The Chilean congress is considering a proposed constitutional reform that would give permanent immunity from prosecution to all former heads of state.

Some legal experts in Chile also say that the military courts could question the jurisdiction of civilian courts in any cases involving Gen. Pinochet, while a common law statute called the prescription law says that any crimes committed more than 15 years before a present date cannot be prosecuted.

In the end, the biggest stumbling block to a trial may be the Chilean military. They may not react with the same restraint that they showed during the arrests of Pinochet-era officials last year, says Guillermo Holzmann, an expert on the Chilean military at the University of Chile political science department.

If the courts try to put the general on trial, that would be the same as putting the military regime on trial, and the military will not accept that. "They will probably take some sort of action to pressure the government to prevent a trial from happening," Mr. Holzmann said.

Chile's new president-elect, Ricardo Lagos, who takes office on March 11, told reporters in Uruguay on Wednesday that his government will not accept pressure applied from any sector upon the Chilean courts.

"If there exists pressure from someone on the courts, I will denounce it publicly. Chile has a long democratic tradition, and nobody is above the law no matter how powerful they may be," Mr. Lagos said.

On the streets of Santiago, Chileans were subdued in their reaction to the impending arrival of the former dictator. But all seemed to agree that the country had changed because of Gen. Pinochet's ordeal in Britain. "Chileans respect human rights more now. We are also now not afraid to say what is on our minds," said Elsa Rivardo, 26, a law student.

Chilean Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes told reporters that Gen. Pinochet was responsible for his fate and that his detention in Britain had been an embarrassment for the country.

"This has been a disgraceful business for Chile's image abroad, and the principal responsible is Augusto Pinochet, who has permanently disregarded international public opinion and those who criticized the violation of human rights in Chile," Mr. Valdes said.

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