On Friday, a Chilean judge indicted Gen. Augusto Pinochet for his role in 1973's "Caravan of Death." The 85-year-old former president's lawyers claim he is the victim of "irregular and arbitrary acts" because he was not questioned before the charges were filed, and the Chilean military backed their former commander publicly. The next step in the saga will probably be "sanity" tests to determine if Pinochet is fit to stand trial.
Shortly after coming to power in 1973, Pinochet allegedly ordered the "Caravan of Death," a military hit squad that traveled around Chile killing about 55 political prisoners. Several other detainees (the numbers cited vary from 17 to 19) "disappeared" at the time of the caravan's visits. The disappearances are the key to the latest charges: Although the general was stripped of his immunity from prosecution this summer, he was still protected by an amnesty law that prevents the prosecution of crimes committed during the regime. However, since the bodies of the disappeared have never been found, the Chilean Supreme Court decided they can be considered cases of kidnapping, which is an "ongoing crime," and is exempted from the terms of the amnesty. (It's probably significant that Chilean and other Latin American papers made much less of this aspect of the case than their European counterparts. At this point, though, it's too early to tell if the Europeans are wrong or if they're just more obsessed with process!)
Writing in Britain's Observer, author Ariel Dorfman claimed, "Pinochet has just been deliciously trapped in the web of his own perversity." By "[d]enying families the bodies of their murdered relatives," the authorities were able to "kill their adversaries and not be held accountable," but now they may have to find the bodies:
To get off the hook, Pinochet will now have to prove that he killed—or ordered the assassination—of the prisoners; he would have to disinter them from their anonymous graves, drag them out of the rivers and the seas where they were cast. Then and only then could his amnesty be applied to him: he would be freed because he had, admittedly, committed murder.
Canada's National Post described the notion of treating the disappeared as kidnap victims as "an absurd and tortured interpretation of the amnesty agreement to excuse what is a plain double-cross. Even human rights groups that would love nothing better than to see Gen. Pinochet put behind bars concede that the victims of Caravana de la Muerte died long ago." The editorial concluded:
Prosecuting Gen. Pinochet will discourage future tyrants from making deals to quit power peaceably. Presumably, Gen. Pinochet would not have stepped down if he knew that a decade later, legal casuists would be poking holes in his amnesty agreement. Under the rubric of human rights justice, the Chilean government is casting aside the plain intent of a legal agreement. Effectively, the Chilean government is saying that the end (punishing Gen. Pinochet) justifies the means (traducing the law)—which is precisely the justification he and others have used to excuse dictatorship.
Several papers profiled Patricia Verdugo, the journalist whose best-selling book, Los Zarpazos del Puma (The Thuds of the Puma, a reference to the sound of the Puma helicopters that formed the caravan), probed the events of 1973. El Tiempo of Colombia reported that the book has sold more than 140,000 copies in bookstores as well as more than 500,000 pirate editions on Chile's streets. According to Le Monde of Paris, the author's father, Sergio Verdugo, was found dead in 1976, two days after he was arrested in Santiago. Verdugo told El Tiempo that Pinochet's October 1998 arrest in London was "decisive" in the gradual progression of stripping Pinochet of immunity and pressing charges. Dorfman agreed: "The shameful fact that the outside world was judging Pinochet while [Chileans] had been unable to do so, changed the moral climate for good." (For more on the general's return to Chile after an enforced 17-month stay in Britain, see this "International Papers" from March.)
The Observer praised Chile for "another courageous step forward." It said, "[A] precedent has been set that no putative dictator can ignore. If you shoot, kidnap and torture your own people and abandon commonly-held rules of judicial process you cannot escape prosecution." Meanwhile, Uruguay's La República lamented, "Now only Uruguay is left as a penal paradise for the tyrants of [Latin] America."
Canadian slap-down:National Post co-owner Conrad Black and the editorial writers at the rival Globe and Mail engaged in an All-Canadian slagging match this weekend. The war of words began when Black, in a dreadful mood after the Liberal Party romped home to an increased majority in last week's federal elections, mused (originally in the pages of the Wall Street Journal) that it was "only a matter of time before some well-liked American president … offers a 'Helmut Kohl' solution—parity for the U.S. and Canadian dollars as part of a federal union." The Globe and Mail pounced on Black's op-ed, declaring that he was "thinking too small and aiming too low." German unification wasn't the right metaphor; instead Canada should think of itself "as a cold but scrappy up-and-comer like AOL swallowing up a warm, immense but complacent Time-Warner." Among the benefits to the United States: "Gun control. The Second Amendment is scrapped and Americans belatedly discover that when fewer people are armed, murder and gun-related injury rates fall fourfold. … Medicare. Those 40 million or so uninsured Americans no longer will go to bed every night wondering what they will do if they wake up sick enough to go to a doctor but too poor to pay for it. Unintended side effect: More work for Canadian doctors who emigrated to the U.S. … Irony. Americans finally get it." Certain publishers still seem to be irony-deficient, however. After the Globe and Mail's satire appeared, Black rushed to thank the National Post for its "accurate presentation" of his WSJ piece, unlike the naughty Globe and Mail, which, he said, had "dishonestly portrayed" the column.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.