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Boston Globe, 27.5.00, p.A14

Editorial - Justice pursuing Pinochet

Even if General Augusto Pinochet is never actually tried and convicted for crimes against humanity that were committed in Chile during his military dictatorship, the vote Tuesday by Chile's Court of Appeals to strip him of the legal immunity he enjoyed as a senator-for-life confirmed principles crucial to a democracy.

Above all, the court's ruling affirmed the centrality of justice that is impervious to politics and rendered by an independent judiciary. Chile's moderate socialist president, Ricardo Lagos, has laudably refrained from any effort to intervene in the politically charged case as it proceeds through the Chilean court system.

At first, the Chilean military took the opposite tack, making gestures and statements meant to intimidate Lagos, the courts, and the plaintiff families of Chileans who disappeared after Pinochet's military putsch in 1973. Immediately after the Appeals Court decision, the chief of Chile's army, General Ricardo Izurieta, paid an ostentatious visit to Pinochet and called the visit a show of ''institutional support'' by the military for its old chief.

Pinochet's son, also called Augusto, went so far as to intimate that another coup could be provoked if the 108 lawsuits against his father were not abandoned. He said the prosecution of the erstwhile dictator ''is planting the seed of a deep division among Chileans, and when this happens the result may be a situation like the one in September 1973.'' All Chileans would recognize this allusion to Pinochet's original seizure of power.

In response, President Lagos firmly defended democratic institutions and procedures, until Izurieta said that Chile's armed forces regret, but will accept, the court's lifting of Pinochet's immunity.

Since Pinochet and his backers fought a Spanish effort to extradite him from Britain on the grounds that only Chilean courts could try him for crimes committed under his regime, Chilean judges and elected leaders have become the ultimate defenders not only of Chileans' human rights, but of a democratic justice that cannot be thwarted or corrupted by power.

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