Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Analysts: Pinochet can delay justice

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) -- Every time justice closes in on former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the 88-year-old retired general accused of hundreds of atrocities eludes the courts in a blur of delay tactics.

Despite a surge in expectations when Chile's high court recently gave the green light to a new human rights trial against Pinochet, and a scandal over secret multimillion dollar offshore accounts, legal experts say justice is still remote.

"Justice is slow. These trials are just beginning. We are all mortals and nothing is going to be resolved before the general dies," said Gustavo Cuevas, dean of the law school at the Universidad Mayor.

A heart condition, diabetes and other ailments have kept Pinochet out of the public eye in recent years.

Pinochet took power in 1973 in a U.S.-encouraged military coup. His secret police killed or "disappeared" an estimated 3,000 opponents to his 17-year regime and tortured and drove into exile tens of thousands more.

Internationally, Pinochet's notoriety gained force after his 1998 arrest in London on a groundbreaking international warrant issued by a Spanish judge who tried to bring him to trial for crimes against humanity.

But at home, he is less and less politically relevant and legal experts say that takes pressure off the justice system to resolve cases quickly.

"These days there is not a big interest in Chile's political world to push these investigations along any faster than the pace of the justice system ... (and) this is not a trial system that acts quickly," said constitutional law professor Gustavo Cordero, an advisor to right-wing presidential candidate Joaquin Lavin.

A tax fraud investigation on whether Pinochet stashed up to $8 million in offshore accounts is unlikely to rush the human rights cases.

In the 1990's, Chileans voted down strict pro-Pinochet and anti-Pinochet lines but that division is seen less stark in 2005 presidential elections.

"This issue is just not relevant for young voters. The government itself is not interested in using (Pinochet justice) as a campaign issue," said Walter Sanchez, a political scientist at the University of Chile.

Last month, Chile's high court reviewed one specific human rights case and stripped Pinochet of the immunity from prosecution granted to ex-presidents, only the second time it has ever done so in hundreds of cases filed by victims.

That opened the door for a judge to investigate his responsibility in the deaths of 19 leftists under Operation Condor, the 1970's South American military regime spy group.

Victims' families celebrated the ruling, but Pinochet's defense immediately filed motions to try to derail the proceedings and opportunities abound to stall the case.

Four years ago in a different human rights case, the Supreme Court stripped Pinochet's immunity for the first time. But the case fizzled in 2002 when the same court agreed found that Pinochet's dementia made him unfit to stand trial.

Cordero said the court is likely to repeat its finding. "It's only logical that they will rule the same way again."

Copyright 2004 Reuters.