23 September 2004 Edition

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Bloody dictator still evades justice - 88-year-old dictator "feels his end is near"

Every time justice nears him, Chile's former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, managed to pull a 'sicky' to delay or walk free from the judicial process. It worked in the case of his detention in Britain in 1999, where he was arrested during a trip to undergo some back surgery. Fully recovered from the operation, Pinochet alleged old age and a faulty memory, and pleaded with the British Government to let him return to Chile to die. He was allowed so much — though the death squads and the army under his orders were not so understanding when they tortured and killed the ill and the infirm- and when he landed in Chile he laughed as he walked on the airport tarmac, his face glowing with health and happiness.

Now that justice has closed in on him on his own country, his supporters again claim that the 88-year-old dictator "feels his end is near". All that after the bloody dictator left Santiago's Military Hospital after being treated for bronchitis.

"He spontaneously expressed, to people who went to see him, his gratitude for everything that they have done for him, and that has been interpreted as a sort of farewell," Maximiliano Errazuriz, a right-wing legislator whose National Renovation Party supported Pinochet's 1973-'90 military rule, said. "He feels his end is near."

Pinochet's hospitalisation comes as he faces possible trial for torture and murder tactics used by his government to put down political opponents.

Maybe Pinochet's disease has more to do with his astonishment as what he thought would be a peaceful and enjoyment retirement has turned into a nightmarish chase through the courts by the relatives of those who were 'disappeared' and murdered under his regimes. Before he left power, after losing a referendum to prolong his rule in the late 1980s, Pinochet had put together a new constitution for the country, which included immunity for all those holding parliamentary seats, and he named himself senator for life.

However, Chile's Supreme Court rescinded Pinochet's immunity from prosecution last month, only the second time it has ever done so in hundreds of cases filed by victims. This ruling opened the way for Pinochet to stand trial for his part in Operation Condor, a conspiracy of South America's 1970s military dictatorships to eliminate their opponents and spirit the bodies away to other countries in the network: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. During Pinochet's 17-year rule, some 3,000 people, by official accounting, were murdered or 'disappeared' while in state custody and are presumed to have been murdered.

Judge Juan Guzman Tapia, who is investigating Operation Condor, will set a date to interrogate Pinochet. Formal questioning of the general has twice been delayed by his lawyers, and legal experts say justice is still remote, as there is no political will to push forward the process against the former dictator.

"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.

"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.

In early 2001, Guzman put Pinochet under house arrest for six weeks after charging him with masterminding the abduction and murder of political opponents in 1973. The Supreme Court closed the case in July 2002, stating that Pinochet had a case of "mild dementia" that would not allow him to properly defend himself.

And Pinochet's defence seems to be pursuing the same argument one more time, as Pinochet's chief defence lawyer, Pablo Rodriguez, has announced that there are still "multiple health reasons" that make Pinochet unfit to be tried or even questioned. He has offered to show Guzman recent medical tests.

Though his lawyers have long claimed that Pinochet is too ill to defend himself, he appeared to undermine that defence in November 2003, when he appeared in an interview with a Miami-based Spanish language television station, cogently arguing that he views himself as a "good angel" and blaming the abuses of his regime on subordinates.

However, it is possible that Chile's Tax Revenue Commissioners could finally bring Pinochet to the place he deserves to be, the court house, as the general is also being investigated by another judge, the state prosecutor and the internal revenue service to determine the source of $4 million to $8 million he secretly deposited at Riggs Bank in Washington in the mid 1990s. The existence of the accounts was disclosed by a US Senate banking committee investigating Riggs.

Pinochet's relatives and associates say the money is legitimate, the product of savings, donations and good investments. "The money my father had was the result of his savings, it was the result of donations and, undoubtedly, it was also the result of profits from these investments," said Marco Antonio Pinochet, one of Pinochet's five children. One of Pinochet's financial advisors, Oscar Aitken, has said the strongman's fortune could total $15 million. Aitken, who is also the executor of Pinochet's will, said an initial investment of "a few hundred thousand dollars" could multiply quickly if yields were high.

In 1973, after taking power in a bloody coup, Pinochet declared assets worth $118,000 and in 1989 declared $458,000.

Aitken's maths sparked ironic reactions from government officials. In the past, there have been suspicions about Pinochet's relationship with the underworld, and his involvement in drug trafficking and tax evasion.

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