U.S. has opportunity to bring General Pinochet to justice

Nation bears some guilt for aiding Chilean regime

April 04, 1999|By PETER KORNBLUH

THE BRITISH Law Lords have ruled: Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet does not have immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity. This ruling means that the man whose name became synonymous with human rights violations will remain a prisoner in London in the weeks and months to come -- and it opens the door for Spain to pursue his extradition.

The decision also provides time and opportunity for the Clinton administration to take a stand, after a lengthy and shameful silence, on the past and future of the infamous Chilean general.

For human rights activists, the March 24 ruling is a victory. It declares state-sponsored torture to be "an international crime in the highest sense" and suggests that those who practice it, including former heads of state, will be held accountable. Human rights violators such as Pinochet are to be treated like international criminals susceptible to arrest and prosecution anywhere.

Still, the lords' complicated judgment does not assure that Pinochet will be extradited to Madrid to stand trial. The 6-1 decision by Britain's highest court narrows the scope of Pinochet's extraditable crimes of torture and assassination to offenses that his regime committed after 1988, when Britain signed the International Convention against Torture. In the coming months of legal wrangling, Spain's case for extradition, which had focused on Pinochet abuses committed between 1973 and 1990, will have to be reconsidered.

While long extradition hearings take place in London, international attention will turn to the United States. With a shameful history of intervention in Chile, Washington holds the key to Pinochet's fate.

The United States covertly promoted a bloody military coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende between 1970 and 1973, then welcomed General Pinochet to power and helped him consolidate his rule. "In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here," Secretary of State Henry Kissinger confided to Pinochet, according to a recently declassified document.

Pinochet might have mistaken that sympathy for a green light to commit the most heinous act of terrorism ever to occur on the streets of Washington, D.C. Three months after Pinochet's meeting with Kissinger, agents of Chile's secret police detonated a bomb under the car of former Chilean ambassador to the U.S. and Pinochet critic Orlando Letelier, killing him and Ronni Moffitt, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park and a colleague of Letelier.

The Letelier-Moffitt assassination gives the United States standing in the Pinochet case. There is strong circumstantial evidence of the general's involvement. His former intelligence chief, jailed in Chile, has said that Pinochet approved "all major missions" of the secret police, known as DINA. A Chilean official has testified that Pinochet blocked him from confessing the regime's role in the assassination to U.S. investigators.

Attorney General Janet Reno has hinted the Justice Department might reopen its investigation into Pinochet's role and consider asking Britain to extradite him to the states. Now that the Law Lords have ruled, there is no excuse not to ask for Pinochet's extradition. The United States has the opportunity -- and the power -- to bring to justice a renowned practitioner of terrorism against Chileans and U.S. citizens. On September 21 -- the 22nd anniversary of the Letelier-Moffitt killings -- President Clinton urged all nations at the United Nations General Assembly to "give terrorists no support, no sanctuary ... to act together to step up extradition and prosecution."

It is time to put those words into practice. It is also time to declassify the vast secret archives of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense and State departments on the Letelier-Moffitt murders, the U.S. role in Chile and Pinochet's violations of human rights. For years, U.S. officials have claimed that these documents must remain classified for the sake of national security. In truth, thousands of documents have never been declassified because the United States has so much to hide in its history of helping Pinochet seize -- and maintain -- power.

Under pressure from Congress, Spain and the families of Pinochet's families, Clinton issued a directive last month on "Declassifying Documents Related to Human Rights Abuses in Chile." It orders the Departments of State, Defense and Justice and the CIA to undertake "a compilation and review for release of all documents that shed light on human rights abuses, terrorism and other acts of political violence during and prior to the Pinochet era in Chile."

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