Pinochet response by U.S. faulted Rights groups criticize 'deafening silence' on repression, terrorism

October 31, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration's noncommittal reaction to the arrest in Britain of Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet has baffled and angered human rights activists, who say the White House is passing up a chance to strike a blow against repression and terrorism.

"The silence is deafening, and it's been noticed by the human-rights community all over the world," says Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat.

In the past, the administration has championed war-crimes tribunals to try those accused of mass killings in the Balkans and Rwanda and had explored ways of prosecuting the late Pol Pot for his murderous reign of terror in Cambodia. But it is keeping its distance from efforts to have Great Britain extradite the 82-year-old Pinochet to Spain for trial on charges of human-rights abuses, including the killing and torture of Spanish citizens during his rule in Chile.

"This is a legal matter between Spain, the UK and Chile," James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said this week, repeating the consistent American line since Pinochet was arrested in London on Oct. 17.

The administration says it has cooperated in providing information to Spanish authorities about Pinochet's possible crimes. This includes material from a federal criminal investigation into the 1976 assassination of a former Chilean foreign minister and his American assistant on Embassy Row in Washington.

But it has taken no new steps to declassify any of the thousands of secret documents that experts believe are still in U.S. government files. That material likely includes information from past American intelligence on Chile, where the U.S. actively undermined Pinochet's democratically elected predecessor.

"I think its position is regrettable," said Diane Orentlicher, a professor of international law at American University. "[The administration] ought to be expressing support in a much more clear way for the efforts of the Spanish magistrate -- particularly since the crimes of the Pinochet regime came to our own streets."

Samuel R. Berger, the president's national security adviser, shed new light on the administration's stance yesterday. Answering questions at the National Press Club, he suggested it was largely up to Chileans to decide how to confront their bloody past.

"I think it's for every country itself to determine how, as it emerges from this period, in its own interests it can best reconcile the demands for justice and the need for reconciliation," Berger said.

But analysts say the bland American reaction also stems from a combination of worry over Chilean stability and economic considerations. Eight years after Pinochet yielded power in an agreement that granted him lifetime amnesty, Chilean democracy is still fragile. Pinochet himself still enjoys support from a middle class that prospered under the economic reforms he enacted.

The United States counts Chile as a major trading partner and as the next nation that will join a free trade pact with the United States, Canada and Mexico. U.S. warplane manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have courted Chile as a potential customer.

"No one doubts it has performed better than any other country in Latin America economically," said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "And it's one of the two or three best-functioning democracies" in the region.

In a letter to President Clinton last week, Miller and 35 other House members demanded that the administration cooperate with Spanish investigators and, in particular, declassify documents that could bolster their case.

Pinochet may never fall into the hands of the Spaniards seeking to try him. A high court in London declared this week that present and former heads of state enjoyed immunity in the United Kingdom. The British House of Lords will hear an appeal of the case next week.

But the Spanish inquiry is expected to continue nonetheless. It received a boost yesterday when 11 high court judges in Spain rejected an internal Spanish attempt to halt the investigation.

In the pantheon of Latin American strongmen, few have stirred ideological passions in Washington as much as Pinochet, who rose to power in a coup that toppled Salvador Allende Gossens, a Marxist. The Nixon administration initially tried to prevent Allende from assuming office in 1970. Failing that, it worked to undermine his regime economically until Allende was overthrown.

But Pinochet quickly became a symbol of brutal Latin repression and a target of President Jimmy Carter's human rights campaign.

"In many ways, Pinochet launched the concept of 'disappearances' in Latin America that was replicated by the Argentine junta," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the practice of causing political dissidents to vanish without trace.

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