Pinochet war crimes and Universal Jurisdiction

09/13/06 Seán Kinane
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On Monday and Tuesday of this week, experts from three continents gathered at USF to discuss the crimes of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The two-day panel, called Human Rights, State Terrorism, and Universal Jurisdiction was sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean.

On September 11 1973, the democratically elected government of Chile, led by Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a military coup by General Augusto Pinochet. Juan Guzman, a Chilean Judge was able to prosecute Pinochet by devising a novel interpretation stating that the statute of limitations does not apply to kidnappings in which no body was found, since they constitute crimes that are still in progress. Guzman outlines some of the atrocities during the dictator's 17-year reign.

"More than 30 thousand people were tortured; more than 5000 killed during Pinochet's era and more than one thousand two hundred continue disappeared. I won't speak about the forms of torture because really it's disgusting."

Attorney Juan Garces was a political advisor to Allende. He later led the prosecution in Spain, bringing charges against Pinochet that led to his arrest in London in 1998. WMNF asked Garces if he thought that justice would prevail in the case of Pinochet. Garces replied that even though Pinochet is not in jail, that because he has been indicted and is wanted for arrest in countries outside of Chile, he is a fugitive.

"The fact that he's a fugitive of justice means that justice is working."

Author John Dinges has written books on the crimes of the Pinochet regime, most recently The Condor Years - How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. Dinges describes how international justice has changed since the 1998 arrest of Pinochet in London.

"Before, internationally, impunity was the expectation of heads of state, almost without exception. Now, after 1998, after Pinochet's arrest, there is no automatic expectation of impunity. There is the expectation of international justice for crimes against humanity, at least in the case of crimes of humanity."

Human rights advocates hope that the concept of universal jurisdiction, which means that crimes against humanity can be prosecuted anywhere in the world, will bring other war criminals to justice. But there is rarely the political will to punish powerful countries for violations of international law. Saul Landau is a filmmaker, journalist, and author who told WMNF that Israeli officials might not be prosecuted for their recent war crimes against Lebanon.

"I don't know if the Israelis are going to face war tribunals because of the massacre of civilians in Lebanon and the wanton destruction of Lebanese civilian property. They certainly deserve it. But I don't know if it will happen. So far the powerful have been protected. They have not subjected themselves to the very laws that they have authorized. Now, as long as this happens, the rule of law will not prevail and the rule of war will prevail."

Landau feels that, like Pinochet, President Bush should be tried for crimes against humanity.

"I think George Bush should be brought to trial for dragging the American people into war and killing thousands of people in Iraq. And I think all the other members of the Bush administration who made the war should be brought to trial."

But Landau admits that the Iraq war and the 9/11 coup in Chile aren't the only examples in American history of complicity in toppling governments.

"All over America today it says '9/11, Lest We Forget' with the American Flag. And I was thinking to myself 'Do they have these in Tehran about the 1953 coup, do they have it in Guatemala on the 1954 coup, do they have it in the Congo, do they have it in Brasil, for 1964, or Dominican Republic or Indonesia.?' These are just some of many examples. 'Lest they forget' You know, it's always struck me as amazing that the country that is militarily invulnerable also thinks of itself as the primary victim in the world."

Jan Knippers Black is a professor of Latin American Studies at American University. She also pointed out the violent history of the United States and quoted something former Vice President Hubert Humphrey said not long after the coup in Chile regarding possible repercussions for national security.

"The United States is now reaping what it has sown abroad. All the methods of subversion, the criminal acts that we've perpetrated in other countries to try to overthrow their governments and so forth have finally come home to haunt us."

One of the participants in the symposium experienced those criminal acts first hand. Professor Nibaldo Calleguillos worked in the government under Allende. He described to WMNF how he was one of the first people arrested during the 1973 coup.

"I was at the time a government official, my office was raided by the military. And since I was in charge, I was detained. Yeah, I was one of the first people to be detained as the coup unfolded. I could hear the sounds of the warplanes flowing and dropping the bombs on the presidential palace."

To learn more about the Institute for the Study of Latin American and the Caribbean, visit

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