Pinochet Entangled in Web of Inquiries
By LARRY ROHTER
RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb. 6 - Things have been going so badly for Gen. Augusto Pinochet recently that he had rare grounds for satisfaction when a Chilean court last month ordered him released from house arrest. But his lawyers then had a new complaint: because his assets had been frozen in connection with another inquiry, he could not afford to post the required bond, they said.
Increasingly, General Pinochet finds himself entangled in a spider's web of interlocking investigations. Over the past few days, signs of progress have been registered in three different cases against him, and there is also the threat of a fourth complaint that would further tie up the ailing, 89-year-old former dictator's time and money.
When he was first detained in London in 1998 and his possible extradition to stand trial in Spain was being argued, human rights groups "used to say there was no chance he would ever be brought to trial in Chile because he was sacrosanct," recalled Sebastian Brett, the Chile representative of Human Rights Watch. "But now look at him. He's facing trouble on every front."
At the moment, General Pinochet seems most vulnerable over having lost his immunity from prosecution in the investigation into the assassination of Gen. Carlos Prats, a predecessor as commander of the Chilean Army. General Prats and his wife were killed in Buenos Aires in 1974, and the prime suspect has always been the secret police force that General Pinochet created shortly after seizing power on Sept. 11, 1973.
In Washington late last week, the Chilean investigative judge in charge of the Prats case said he had been able to talk with two crucial witnesses there. Judge Alejandro Solís said he was "very satisfied" with what he had heard and praised the cooperation of the United States Justice Department.
The witnesses were Michael Townley, an American who has admitted planting the car bomb that killed General Prats, and Armando Fernández Larios, both former agents in the secret police force. The two men, convicted of involvement in the 1976 car-bomb killing in Washington of the former foreign minister of Chile, Orlando Letelier, live freely in the United States as part of accords negotiated with the American authorities.
"The information I had was corroborated by each," Judge Solís told reporters. In a telephone interview from Washington, Peter Kornbluh, director of the Chile project at the National Security Archive, said, "I think the judge is really here to establish the chain of command," which could lead to General Pinochet.
To historians, the Prats assassination foreshadowed the creation of Operation Condor, a coordinated effort by six South American military governments to hunt down and kill exiled political opponents that began in the mid-1970's. Chile was the organizing force behind the campaign, and late last year General Pinochet was ruled fit to stand trial on 10 counts of kidnapping and murder that were part of that operation, a decision that led to his house arrest.
In both the Condor and the Prats cases, General Pinochet must worry about what Gen. Manuel Contreras, whom the general picked personally to lead the secret police force, might say. General Contreras, who began serving a 12-year prison sentence late last month in connection with another case, has expressed bitterness at being made the scapegoat for the dictatorship's human rights abuses and has criticized General Pinochet for leaving his subalterns unprotected.
"General Pinochet needs to assume his responsibility," General Contreras said in an interview in Santiago in late November. As he was taken away to jail late last month, his daughter said General Contreras had a strongbox full of secret documents, lending credence to rumors that he is preparing to implicate General Pinochet in additional cases of human rights abuses.
Encouraged by all those developments, lawyers for the family of Charles Horman have said they are also contemplating action against General Pinochet. Mr. Horman was an American journalist whose kidnapping and presumed death at the hands of Chilean security forces in the days immediately after General Pinochet's coup formed the basis of the Academy Award-winning film "Missing."
In the court of Chilean public opinion, General Pinochet has been on the defensive since last July, when Congressional investigators in the United States disclosed that he had secretly deposited as much as $8 million at Riggs Bank in Washington. As a result, he is being investigated on possible charges of tax evasion, money laundering and misappropriation of government funds.
Last month, however, Chilean newspapers published documents indicating that Sergio Muñoz, the judge in charge of the Riggs case, had determined that General Pinochet actually had $16 million deposited abroad, using five aliases. General Pinochet's lawyers did not respond to requests for comment, but the information appears to be based on records seized during a recent search of General Pinochet's offices in Santiago.
His defense team has succeeded in having Judge Muñoz removed from the case on technical grounds, at least temporarily. But his replacement, Dobra Luksic, has increased the pressure and has begun interrogating about 60 people who worked for General Pinochet, including drivers, bodyguards and his personal secretary, who might have knowledge of his financial transactions.
Late last week, another bank being scrutinized by American investigators, the Banco de Chile, announced that it was closing accounts that General Pinochet and his business agent maintained at branches in New York and Miami. The United States Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said Banco de Chile employees had concealed accounts "under the name of nominees and others acting under Pinochet's direction."
The bank, in a statement issued in the name of its chief executive officer, Pablo Granifo, said it had "initiated and conducted a thorough investigation into transactions involving the bank's U.S. offices" and General Pinochet. The results of that inquiry have been provided to American bank regulators, the statement said, and Banco de Chile pledged to "continue its full cooperation."