Human rights advocates thought that one of the biggest fish in the school of brutal dictators had been landed when Chile's Augusto Pinochet was arrested in England on Spanish charges of human rights abuses. But a British court found him too ill to stand trial and he was returned to Chile where he was not too ill to celebrate with his supporters. Amazing, the restorative power of Chilean soil.
Chilean human rights lawyers were hopeful that Pinochet would still be called to account for his role in the execution and disappearance of thousands who supported the elected President Salvador Allende, whom Pinochet deposed with American help. But no such luck.
Last week a Chilean appeals court ruled that Pinochet's mental health has deteriorated to the point that he could not help defend himself in a trial. We would agree that Pinochet suffers from dementia, but whatever his advancing age may have brought on is nothing compared to the insane policies he directed at the height of his power.
Absolute corruption: If the world needed yet another exemplar of Lord Acton's famous dictum, "All power tends to corrupt but absolute power corrupts absolutely," then Pinochet would certainly qualify.
Just ask the thousands of Chilean families still waiting to hear what happened to loved ones who "disappeared" during Pinochet's despotic rule. Or the tens of thousands of survivors who were tortured or forced into exile by the death squads run by Pinochet's henchmen.
Even as Chile worked towards democratization, Pinochet was named a senator for life, an action that gave him legislative immunity from prosecution and allowed him to retain the trappings of power.
After his return from England, Pinochet's immunity was revoked so that he could stand trial for his crimes, but now that he has been deemed unfit to stand trial it is unlikely that the evidence against him will ever be used or that he will ever be punished for his tyranny.
Healing process: Pinochet's escape from justice -- if not from history -- may spare a nation trying to forge a democracy from the divisiveness of a protracted trial. In our own nation, then-President Gerald Ford pardoned the disgraced President Richard Nixon after his resignation to permit the nation to heal.
But as we have seen, the legacy of Watergate still affects the nation, although the memory of Nixon's wrongdoing continues to fade. We can never know what would have happened had he been tried and found guilty of obstructing justice.
Pinochet, of course, did not only obstruct justice, he ripped it to shreds. And his crimes, unlike Nixon's, were unspeakably brutal.
Still the absence of a trial for Pinochet allows Luis Cort & eacute;s Villa, president of the Pinochet Foundation, to hope that henceforth "my general will live in dignity and tranquility."
He deserves neither.