Fear casts its shadow over Pinochet trial

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The Independent Online
WITH HIS sunglasses, scowl, high-fronted Nazi-style cap, and Franco- like moustache, Chile's General Augusto Pinochet was the epitome of the Latin American military dictator. Under his 17-year rule from 1973, more than 3,000 political opponents were killed or "disappeared". Today, he faces prosecution on charges of "genocide, kidnapping and the illegal burying of bodies" in a criminal case which is now being heard by a judge in the capital, Santiago. The case is the most serious attack on Gen Pinochet since left-wing guerrillas tried to kill him in 1986 with a grenade and machine gun assault on his motorcade. Unlike the street attack, however, this case is barely hitting the headlines in Chile.

One reason is that he continues to inspire fear. Although he ceded power to an elected civilian government in 1990 the general, now 82, has remained commander-in-chief of Chile's powerful army, and as such, can still intimidate the country. He is due to retire from the army next month. But, under a constitutional change which he pushed through and was accepted by the civilian government, he is due to become a "senator-for-life" in the spring.

Partly because the television bosses and newspaper editors remain afraid of "el Viejo" (the Old Man), as he is widely known, and partly because no one seriously believes that he will ever go to jail, the story has been buried beneath tales of common crimes or the exploits of Chile's national football team, including its victory over England at Wembley earlier this month.

Even the criminal case being heard by Judge Juan Guzman is seen as little more than a farce, aimed at satisfying those who believe Gen Pinochet, like his counterparts in Argentina, should pay for his regime's excesses in the country's "Dirty War" Judge Guzman has said that he may call the general as a witness in the case, resulting from a law suit by the Communist Party. Few believe he will dare.

But even if he is found guilty, the result would be little more than a symbolic scolding, as Gen Pinochet would be covered by an amnesty he himself proclaimed during his rule. Once he is in the Senate, which he hopes to enter in the spring, he can claim further immunity.

The question Chileans are asking is will the general retire from the army, as he is required to by the constitution, on 11 March at the latest. Having toppled the elected government in 1973, and then kept the Congress shut down for 17 years, his record of respect for the constitution can scarcely be relied on.

He had planned to go last month but stayed on after members of parliament from the ruling Christian Democracy Party tried to block his appointment as Senator. During an inconclusive debate, police had to move in to clear the gallery as groups of spectators yelled "Assassin!", or "Long live Pinochet!"

The fracas demonstrated Chile's continuing split between liberals and left-wingers, who suffered under his regime, and conservatives who still credit him with saving the country from communism and presiding over free- market reforms and economic success.

In 1993, after the restoration of civilian rule, he sent his forces, faces blackened for combat, onto the streets of Santiago. It was a warning that the General could take over if necessary. Last month, during the moves to keep him out of the Senate, he threatened unnamed congressmen with what he said was "compromising information" he had on them. At the same time, his deputy commander warned that "the army does not like to see its commander-in-chief insulted. It would be a good idea for people to be careful what they say about him." The media got the message. The story moved to the inside pages.