Seven Questions: Joan Garcés on Pinochet’s death

When former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died this week at 91, the people who had spent years pushing for a trial for crimes against humanity were denied their day in court. In this week’s Seven Questions, FP spoke with Joan Garcés, the Spanish lawyer who led the fight to extradite Pinochet and bring him to justice.

JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images Facing the past: Chileans are divided over the legacy of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images Facing the past: Chileans are divided over the legacy of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Foreign Policy: Youve spent thousands of your own money and invested years in an effort to bring Pinochet to justice. What was your reaction upon hearing the news of his death?

Joan Garcs: Well, he was 91 years old, so that he would pass away at this age is not news to me. But what is important is that he died under international warrants by the courts of justices of several countries, among them Spain, France, and Belgium. In Spain, for example, since 1998 he had been indicted for the crimes of genocide, terrorism, and systematic and massive tortures for political reasons. So he died as a fugitive of justice. He took shelter in his own country in 2000, and even there, he was under house arrest, indicted for crimes against humanity by the laws of his own country.

FP: And yet, he was never tried. In light of your experience, why do you think that is?

JG: I filed a criminal complaint and civil suit against Pinochet in July 1996 on behalf of all the victims, more than 4,000 people who were murdered or disappeared and hundreds of thousands of people who were tortured. I filed it in the Spanish National Criminal Court because I assumed that it was impossible to put him on trial in his country. In 1998, I requested from the Spanish court for the extradition of Pinochet from the United Kingdom, where he was staying at the time. And he was arrested on Oct. 16, 1998. In 1999, the British courts granted his extradition to Spain. That was the moment in which he could have been put in front of a court of justice. But what happened later, just after this court hearing was a critical deal between the president of Chile, the premier of Spain, and the prime minister of Britain to avoid the implementation of this hearing.

What happened later, between March 2000 and his death, was two things. One, to show that he was in fact fit to stand trial. And the second was that it was impossible to try him in Chile. The first was proven by the U.S. Senate Committee of Investigations that published evidence in July 2004 that before March 2000 and later, he was funneling millions of dollars into more than 100 secret bank accounts in several countries. So it was evident that this man was not mentally ill or suffering dementia. And the second fact was that he was not able to be tried in Chile. That was the result of a consensus in the Chilean military, political, and economic establishments to avoid a trial of Pinochet. As soon as he came back to Chile from London in 2000, the president of Chile at the time granted to Pinochet the status of former head of state of Chile, which gives him immunity. That decision gave to the Pinochet defense the possibility of postponing a trial in Chile indefinitely. That allowed him to die of natural causes.

FP: Do you feel then that you have failed?

JG: My work is now recorded in the courts of Spain and the United Kingdom. The outcome of this work is the establishment of a precedent according to the principles of universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against humanity, even if the crimes were not committed in Spain, nor committed against Spanish citizens. That was confirmed in the United Kingdom. So Im proud of the contribution I made to this case.

FP: What have you heard about the families reactions to Pinochets death?

JG: Well, their reaction has been pretty logical. They were asking for assistance from me, from Spain, because the courts of justice in Chile were closed [to them] in the 1990s and before. They wanted the trial [process] to be open. So they were disappointed when he died before he could be put on trial.

FP: Are you disappointed with the level of support Pinochet still receives in Chile?

JG: This is something that happens in every country. You find people who are ready to support dictatorships and to close their eyes and their ears to crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, that is the case in every country. The problem is, if these percentages of people that are normally quite low can find the circumstances to seize power and to establish a dictatorship using the government to execute massive crimes, they will. That was the case in Chile. People are still choosing to close their eyes to Pinochets legacy in Chile.

FP: How do you respond to those people who say that Pinochet set Chile up to be a thriving economy and removed the country from communismthat he, in effect, contributed to the greatest good for the greatest amount of people?

JG: That is absolutely not true. Look at the situation in 1973. On the same day that Pinochet seized power through a military insurrection, President [Salvador] Allende had scheduled to call for a referendum, which was the democratic way [Chileans] wanted to follow between the options that were open at that moment to the country. So Pinochet took that democratic opportunity away from the nation. Now, concerning the economic situation, the only time in Chilean history the banking systems saw a 100 percent collapse was during the government of Pinochet. If you want to look for a success story of economic progress according to all the macroeconomic indicators, you will find the most spectacular progress in the shortest amount of time was in the Third Reich under Hitler in Germany. Its a myth that Pinochets economic programs were successful. And they could never justify the massive murder of its citizens, the abolition of personal freedoms, and social starvation.

FP: What will historians in the future have to say about Pinochet?

JG: I hope he will be put in the same line as governments of Hitler, Mussolini, Gen. Franco, dictators who terrorize their people. From a rational and democratic point of view, their policies can never be justified.

Joan Garcs is a political scientist at the Sorbonne and was the chief prosecuting attorney in Spains Pinochet case.

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