(Santiago, December 10, 2006) – Former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who died in Santiago on December 10, pioneered the use of “disappearances” as a tool of repression in South America, Human Rights Watch said today. But his arrest in London in 1998 also jumpstarted the use of national courts to try foreign leaders for abuses committed in their own countries, Human Rights Watch said.
“The arrest in London was the beginning of the end for Pinochet and the start of an effort to bring the world’s most powerful abusers to justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Pinochet spent his last years fending off an ever-tightening web of prosecutions in Chile and died a profoundly discredited figure in the land he once ruled.”
Once considered untouchable by the law because of an amnesty his own government had put in place, Pinochet was arrested in Britain after Spain requested his extradition on charges of having committed egregious human rights violations in Chile. Although the British government ultimately ensured that Pinochet returned to Chile instead of sending him to Spain, his arrest helped spur efforts in Chile to prosecute the atrocities committed while he was in power.
Pinochet’s arrest also encouraged the victims of other rights abusers denied justice at home to take their cases to courts in other countries, under the principle that some crimes are so horrendous they can be tried by the courts of other countries even if they have no direct connection to the crimes.
At the time of his death, Pinochet was under house arrest and facing prosecution on multiple human rights and corruption charges.
Pinochet, previously an undistinguished Chilean Army officer, seized power in a bloody coup in September 1973, at a time of intense political polarization. During the 1970s, in a campaign to eradicate leftist parties, the DINA (a military intelligence unit whose chief responded directly to Pinochet) interrogated and tortured victims in clandestine prisons, while it denied holding them in detention – thereby “disappearing” its victims. About 1,000 of the disappeared are believed to have been secretly executed, but to this day the fate of most has never been clarified. Other military agencies and civilian police also participated in the repression.
Government agents also murdered or tried to murder political opponents in exile in Argentina, Spain, and the United States. The Chilean military organized joint intelligence operations with neighboring states to track down and kill dissidents living abroad, a scheme known as Operation Condor.
In October 1988, Pinochet suffered defeat in a plebiscite intended to legitimize the continuation of his rule, and the following year he lost the first presidential election for 19 years. However, under a constitution crafted by his civilian advisors which was introduced in 1980, he was to hold his post as army commander until 1998. Despite the return of Chile to democratic rule, Pinochet continued to wield enormous power until his surprise arrest in London on human rights charges in October 1998.
After he had been held under house arrest in England for 17 months awaiting possible extradition to Spain, the British government finally, and controversially, exercised its discretionary power to return Pinochet to Chile on health grounds.
The case made history. “The Pinochet case awakened new hope for rights abuse victims the world over,” Vivanco said. “British judges confirmed the principle that courts anywhere may have jurisdiction over the gravest human rights crimes, threatening the safety of dictators worldwide.”
Since then, victims have brought human rights cases in European courts against foreign officials accused of committing serious abuses but who would almost certainly escape legal action at home. Most of those brought to trial in the wake of the Pinochet arrest have been mid-level officials, but the chilling effect has kept some leaders accused of abuses attentive to the legal implications of their travel schedules, and activists appear close to pressing Senegal to put former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre on trial.
The London judgment also emboldened the courts in Chile. After Pinochet’s return, judges charged him for the first time for his role in “disappearances” and killings, placed him on several occasions under house arrest, and in October this year, accused him personally of torture. At his death he was facing trial in three human rights cases and others were in the pipeline.
As of October 2006, courts had convicted 109 other agents of his regime for crimes including “disappearances,” extrajudicial executions, and torture. Thirty-five former generals of the army, air force and police have been convicted or are facing trial.
Pinochet, who tried to claim that any crimes were committed for the national good, was also facing charges of tax evasion and forging passports, in connection with some $28 million he held under various versions of his name in 128 US bank accounts. The growing evidence that the former dictator was corrupt as well as brutal discredited him among his erstwhile most devoted political supporters.
Pinochet never owned up to the crimes committed under his rule. In a statement read out on his 91st birthday last week, he complained that the military officers now convicted or accused of abuses were victims of revenge and persecution. Although he accepted political responsibility, he never defended his officers in court by admitting that, as their commander, he gave orders for the crimes to be carried out.
“Pinochet’s greatest legacy may be the cautionary lesson he provides for dictators everywhere,” said Vivanco. “His case showed the world that even the most powerful human rights abusers can be made to face justice.”