If Chilean Doctor Stands Trial, It’s a Whole New World

November 01, 1998

Mark Weisbrot
Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1998

Charlotte Observer, November 4, 1998  

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, October 29, 1998    

There is an old joke, much better known in Latin America than it is here, about US adventures abroad: Why has there never been a military coup in the United States? Answer: Because there’s no U.S. embassy in Washington.

Needless to say, the joke is not well-understood among Washington’s foreign policy elite. After all, they pretend to support democracy and oppose terrorism throughout the world. But one of the ugliest creatures of American intervention has now stumbled onto the center stage of world politics, and U.S. officials aren’t quite sure how they can discreetly haul him off of it.

Chilean General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was arrested in Britain two weeks ago, on the order of a Spanish magistrate who has charged him with crimes against humanity. Pinochet seized power in Chile twenty-five years ago, in a bloody military coup against the elected government of Salvador Allende Gossens. The Nixon Administration opposed Allende, and was massively involved in bringing Pinochet to power. Pinochet’s government is widely known to have systematically murdered, tortured, and “disappeared” thousands of suspected political opponents during his seventeen year rule, including a Chilean and an American citizen killed by his secret police in Washington, D.C.

The dictator secured an amnesty for himself and his accomplices in Chile, for all crimes committed, and stepped down in 1990 to the post he created of “Senator for Life.” But in 1996 Spanish prosecutors charged Pinochet and other Chilean, as well as Argentinean, military leaders, with terrorism and genocide. They asserted jurisdiction partly on the grounds that Spanish citizens were among the victims, and also on the basis of international law which provides that crimes against humanity are “universal crimes” which can be prosecuted by all nations.

The Spanish authorities have requested extradition under the European Convention on Terrorism.

Yesterday a British court rejected the Spanish claim on the grounds that “A former head of state is clearly entitled to immunity for criminal acts committed in the course of exercising public functions.” But Pinochet will remain in custody while British prosecutors appeal the decision, and the case is far from over. There are moves under way to have him tried in France, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Not everyone realizes just how enormous the implications will be if this case goes to trial. It is much bigger than the issue of Pinochet, or any retired dictator, paying for his crimes. And there is much more at stake than the embarrassment that the US government would suffer from the publicity that this trial would receive.

If Pinochet is found guilty, what then for former U.S. officials like Henry Kissinger, who systematically planned the destruction of Chilean democracy? Kissinger was President Nixon’s Secretary of State when his orders were sent to the CIA station chief in Santiago, Chile: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.”

The formerly classified documents that contain this statement are part of a mountain of evidence chronicling our government’s participation in international criminal activities: plotting the overthrow of the Chilean government, sabotaging the economy, and providing weapons for the kidnapping of a key pro-democracy army General (who was subsequently assassinated by another group of military officers collaborating with the CIA).

America’s enormous influence in the world would probably still be enough to keep present and former U.S. officials out of foreign jails, regardless of their actions.But these officials would undoubtedly be more nervous about violating international law, especially with regard to human rights, if they were no longer immune from prosecution.

This is not just a question of accounting for past crimes: the goals and methods of U.S. foreign policy have changed very little since the overthrow of Allende twenty-five years ago. Just a few months ago our military was training units of Suharto’s army in Indonesia believed to be responsible for the kidnapping and torture of students opposing the dictatorship. And our government currently provides money, weapons, and training to the Colombian military in a brutal, death-squad-led counter-insurgency reminiscent of the Reagan Administration’s Central American wars of the 1980s.

The rule of law in international relations is a terrifying principle, from the point of view of the U.S. State Department. And so they are working behind the scenes to get Pinochet out of custody, according to European press reports. On the other side, members of Congress are asking President Clinton to assist the Spanish courts by turning over evidence and testimony that was requested more than a year ago.

In a speech last month to the United Nations, President Clinton argued that terrorism “should be at the top of the world’s agenda,” and called on all nations to “act together to step up extradition and prosecution.” The Clinton Administration’s lack of cooperation in the Pinochet case is astounding, especially since the murder of an American citizen, on American soil, is among the terrorist acts for which the General stands accused. 

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