The Pinochet Precedent

The news that a priest had performed “last rites” for Augusto Pinochet on Sunday was as disappointing for his opponents as his supporters. With a battery of human rights cases pending against the 91-year-old former Chilean dictator, there was still hope that he might one day see the inside of a jail cell, or at least a court room.

And yet as Pinochet reportedly lays in his deathbed, it should be comforting for his critics to consider that he has made other dictators sleep less well in their beds. That’s because of the tireless efforts of family members of victims who teamed up with lawyers, artists, activists, elected officials, journalists and others in Chile and elsewhere. Legions of people have worked for more than three decades to hold Pinochet accountable for his crimes.

The big turning point came on October 16, 1998, the day Pinochet was arrested in London on a Spanish court order. Since then, other human rights violators have had to worry about being “Pinocheted” if they leave their home countries. Indonesia’s Suharto, for example, reportedly avoided seeking medical treatment in Europe for fear of being arrested. Even Henry Kissinger has curtailed his international travel, apparently to avoid legal actions related to his past support for dictatorships.

The British courts stripped Pinochet of his “sovereign immunity” and ruled that Spain could extradite him for torture. Although British Home Secretary Jack Straw intervened and released the aging general after 16 months on “humanitarian grounds,” the case sent a chilling message to other rulers: you no longer sit on privileged thrones above international law. This “Pinochet Precedent” is the crowning global achievement of a 30-year struggle.

In Chile, the case transformed the country’s political and legal landscape. Within 72 hours of Pinochet’s return from London, Judge Juan Guzman moved to strip his immunity from prosecution, opening the floodgates to a series of human rights cases. Pinochet also faces charges of tax evasion and other crimes associated with his possession of hundreds of illegal bank accounts. While none of these cases have gone to trial, they have made the unrepentant former dictator’s twilight years less than golden.

Perhaps equally discomforting for Pinochet is the fact that his office is now occupied by one of his victims. President Michelle Bachelet, a torture survivor whose father was killed by the dictatorship, is a dramatic symbol of Chile’s democratic progress. Her rise to power was boosted in part by Pinochet’s corruption scandals.

In the United States, human rights advocates have also found ways to turn the horror of a bloody dictatorship into a force for justice. Until 9/11, the worst act of international terrorism committed in the nation’s capital was the assassination, 30 years ago, of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt by agents of Pinochet.

Letelier was a former Chilean ambassador and a leading critic of the dictatorship. On the morning of September 21, 1976, he was driving to work with Ronni Karpen Moffitt, a 25-year-old American, when they were killed by a car bomb just blocks from the White House. Both were employed by my organization, the Institute for Policy Studies.

Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen working for the Chilean secret police, pled guilty to organizing the assassination and ratted on others, including secret police Chief Manuel Contreras and Brigadier General Pedro Espinoza. The Chilean government refused requests to hand these two notorious figures of the military regime over to the Americans. After the transition to democracy began in 1990, however, their shields crumbled and they were prosecuted in Chilean courts. In 1995–19 years after the crime–both were imprisoned.

After Pinochet’s arrest in London, there were renewed hopes that the U.S. Justice Department might decide to finally go after the big fish himself. In parole negotiations, Contreras had pointed the finger at his boss, claiming that all his orders came from Pinochet. Two former FBI agents and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney had also insisted that it was “inconceivable” that the Letelier assassination was carried out without Pinochet’s authorization.

Clinton officials did indeed re-activate the Letelier-Moffitt investigation, sending a team to Chile in early 2000 for court proceedings involving 42 potential witnesses subpoenaed on behalf of the U.S. government. The Washington Post reported that “Federal investigators have uncovered evidence that some of them believe is sufficient to indict General Augusto Pinochet for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1976 car bombing.”

What happened thereafter is unclear. There are rumors that a draft indictment of Pinochet was left in the hands of the incoming Republican administration, never to see the light of day. But while the Clinton administration dropped the ball on indicting Pinochet, they did respond to public pressure by declassifying more than 16,000 documents, which have helped clarify the history of U.S. intervention in Chile and served as evidence in legal cases.

This fall, the Institute for Policy Studies hosted the 30th anniversary Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards. The gathering has become a yearly marker in the pursuit of truth and justice for all of Pinochet’s victims, as well as a celebration of new human rights heroes.

By the time of next year’s program, Pinochet will likely no longer be around. But the lessons of the three decades of struggle to hold him accountable will inspire human rights advocates around the world for many years to come.

Sarah Anderson is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and the producer of the short video documentary "30 Years: Families Struggle for Justice."