By Saul Landau
On September 11, 1973 (28 years before the World Trade Center-Pentagon attack), General Augusto Pinochet, leading a gang of treasonous officers, ordered Chilean air force jets to fire missiles at the Presidential Palace. By the end of the day Pinochet had seized power in a bloody, U.S.-backed coup against the elected socialist government of Dr. Salvador Allende who died in the assault on the Palace.
In 1974, Pinochet ordered his secret police to assassinate his former boss, General Carlos Prats, Chile’s army chief, who lived in exile in Buenos Aires. A car bomb blew Prats and his wife six stories high.
In September 1975, another Pinochet foe and his wife got shot in Rome. Christian Democratic leader Bernardo Leighton survived but never fully recovered.
On September 21, 1976, Pinochet’s hit squad detonated a bomb placed under the car of Orlando Letelier, Allende’s last defense minister, exiled in Washington, D.C. The blast on Washington’s Embassy Row severed Letelier’s legs and also killed Ronni Moffitt, an American woman passenger and colleague of Letelier’s at the Institute for Policy Studies where both worked.
Two lead FBI agents investigating the case later affirmed publicly their certainty of Pinochet’s direct responsibility. Despite abundant proof of his guilt, successive attorneys general did not indict him.
When he died in 2006, Pinochet faced 3,197 murder charges – number of proven assassinations; one of his accomplishments during his 17-year reign – 1973-1990. (March 1991, Chilean Commission for Truth and Reconciliation)
In 1998, a smug and retired Pinochet, secure in the Amnesty he had granted himself and his fellow torturers and murders, traveled to England, visited his friend Margaret Thatcher, and then had back surgery. When he awoke from the anesthetic, a British policeman told him he was under arrest; a translator made sure he understood his rights.
Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzón signed the extradition order. Underlying this extraordinary arrest lay a groundwork of legal activity. When Spanish lawyer and former Allende adviser Juan Garces learned of Pinochet’s London trip, he convinced Judge Garzon, who had recently taken over the case, that sufficient evidence existed to ask British authorities to arrest Pinochet and request his extradition to stand trial in Spain and to freeze his assets so that his victims could receive some compensation. British authorities complied.
After16 months in custody, validated by England’s highest Court, the British government maneuvered with Washington and Santiago to free Pinochet on the pretext of mental unfitness for trial.
Garzon proceeded to follow the Pinochet case with indictments and prosecution of other foreign nationals like Argentine navy officer Adolfo Scilingo for crimes against humanity during that country’s dirty war (during the decades of the 1970s to the 80s). He also pursued high-ranking human-rights abusers in Guatemala and in Guantánamo.
In Spain, as a National Court judge, he also, in the 1980s, opened investigations into Spain’s own questionable procedures in its fight against Basque separatists. What got him into trouble, however, derived from his re-opening of crimes committed during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war and the years of dictatorship that ensued. Almost 115,000 people had disappeared during Franco’s fascist regime; thousands were assassinated – with impunity for the criminals.
Garzon’s reputation as human rights defender did not protect him from – and indeed may have contributed to – the wrath of right wing judges with ties to the old Franco regime. Garzon “challenged the very nerve centers of right wing political power,” said Juan Garces, “by going after corruption among the elite of Spain’s right wing party.” He re-opened the issue of “impunity granted by the very people who collaborated with or approved of the kidnappings and murders.” (Netherlands radio interview)
In 2010, Garzon was indicted for criminal abuse of power. A panel of pro-Franco judges declared Garzón guilty of exceeding legal authority because he ordered police to record conversations between suspects in prison and their lawyers. Garzon argued the taping emerged directly from the charges against those in custody and their attorneys: corruption, and suspicion that the lawyers did money laundering for their clients.
The prosecutor called Garzon’s actions “monstrous” and Garzon “some kind of Big Brother who thinks he can listen to everything.”
After hearing the guilty verdict, Garzón said: “This sentence, lacking in juridical basis or supporting evidence, eliminates any possibility of investigating corruption and its associated crimes. Instead, it makes room for impunity and, in its fervor to impugn one particular judge, crushes the independence of the entire Spanish judiciary.”
Perhaps Judge Garzon recalled W.H. Auden’s thought on September 1, 1939 when Nazi troops invaded Poland and World War II began. The fascists in Germany and Italy had also supported Franco. “The unmentionable odor of death offends the September night.” Chileans remember that odor from September 1973, when fascists destroyed their democratically elected government and went on a killing-torture rampage.
Because of the work Garzon and fellow human rights activists, like Garces, some sense of basic justice was restored to people who survived the wounds of military fascism. In 2006, Chilean judge Juan Guzman ordered divers to search for evidence relating to missing bodies of Pinochet victims in Chile. Guzman accumulated evidence about the whereabouts of the 1,200 “disappeared” people – euphemism for avoiding paper trails for murder. No arrest records. No corpse! No crime!
Then the divers found evidence of human remains. The families of the disappeared had proof: Pinochet’s thugs had murdered their loved ones. Garzon’s persecutors now want to hide the Franco era crimes by removing the withering rays of light that this brave judge had shined on the odoriferous deeds.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP is on DVD (cinemalibrestore.com).