Chilean Judge: Just Like Life under Pinochet

By Nir Hasson
"The Palestinians\’ lives under the occupation are reminiscent of the lives of Chile\’s citizens under the dictatorship," says Chilean Judge Juan Guzman, who is visiting Israel, last week. "There, too, people who thought differently were considered enemies: They were imprisoned, tortured and killed. There, too, people couldn\’t move from place to place, they didn\’t have freedom and they didn\’t have equality before the law. But here it\’s harder. It has been going on for longer," he added.

Guzman, 68, became known at the end of the 1990s as an investigative judge pursuing Augusto Pinochet, Chile\’s military dictator between 1973 and 1990. Guzman waged a long legal battle against Pinochet. Despite the former dictator\’s immunity, Guzman succeeded in filing several indictments against him and bringing him to trial. Pinochet\’s trial was never completed because of his health, and he died two months ago at age 91.

Last week Guzman came to Israel as a guest of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and the Alternative Information Center (AIC) to examine indicting Israelis responsible for house demolitions in European courts. Thus far, legal proceedings have been initiated only against military officers. The committee wants to indict civilians as well.

ICAHD has a list of three officials from the Civil Administration, the Jerusalem municipality and the Interior Ministry who ordered the demolition of houses. It is seeking to submit investigation requests against the officials in a European country where the courts have the authority to address international human rights violations. Guzman is slated to give the international seal of approval to the move. If such an investigation is opened, presumably arrest orders will be issued against the three and they will encounter difficulties in visiting Europe.

Guzman\’s great antagonist, Pinochet, died on December 10, International Human Rights Day. "I did not feel satisfaction, but I wasn\’t sad either," he says. "Chile lost a historic opportunity to rebuild itself," he says. "After the justice system was destroyed during the 17-year-long dictatorship, this was an opportunity to demonstrate its independence and to prove to Chile and to the entire world that no one is above the law, that even Pinochet can be tried."

Guzman disagrees with the Chilean Supreme Court, which ruled that Pinochet was not mentally able to stand trial. He says Pinochet was lucid until his last day.

Guzman has been a judge for 36 years. In January 1998, when he was serving as a judge in the Supreme Court of Santiago, he was chosen to investigate human rights charges filed against Pinochet and his officers. Guzman received 98 cases involving Pinochet. He traveled throughout Chile and conducted a comprehensive investigation into Pinochet\’s crimes.

Several months later, Pinochet was arrested in London by order of a Spanish judge, over Spanish citizens killed under the dictatorship. Pinochet returned to Chile a year and five months later, after a British court ruled that because of his poor health, he could not be extradited to Spain. Soon after that, Guzman field his first indictment on charges of responsibility for the "death squad," a secret police unit that murdered 75 regime opponents. Guzman also ordered the house arrest of the former dictator. The decision aroused a storm in Chile: Rightist elements and military officials took Pinochet\’s side, whereas the left took to the street to celebrate.

"It was no simple matter to bring Pinochet to trial," explains Hebrew University political science professor Mario Sznajder. "For some of the country\’s inhabitants, Pinochet was considered the nation\’s savior from the Communists." In addition, Pinochet enjoyed immunity after appointing himself a senator for life, and by virtue of the "amnesty law" he legislated. This law granted "automatic amnesty" to anyone who committed crimes before 1978, but Guzman circumvented this in a sophisticated way.

"I proved the law does not cover disappearances (the fates of more than 1,000 regime opponents are still unknown – N.H.). Thus, as in cases of kidnapping, this is a matter of a crime that did not end in 1978, but rather is ongoing, and until we find out what happened to those people, even if the amnesty law covers part of the crime, it does not cover all of it. The Supreme Court accepted my opinion," Guzman says.

In 2001, the Chilean Supreme Court ordered the proceedings against Pinochet cancelled due to his mental unfitness. Two years later, Guzman came across an interview Pinochet gave a Cuban television station in the United States on the 30th anniversary of the military coup.

"He spoke about 158 different subjects and appeared to be in very good and lucid shape," recalls Guzman. In the wake of the interview, which proved the dictator was fit to stand trial, Guzman reopened the investigation. The Supreme Court again revoked Pinochet\’s immunity, and Guzman filed another indictment against him, this time for Operation Condor – the South American military regimes\’ cooperation in persecuting opponents, which resulted in hundreds of murders.

Guzman went to Pinochet\’s home and interrogated him. "He could tell the difference between good and evil, and he could also tell the difference between what was convenient for him to answer and what was not convenient," relates Guzman. "This time he was less nice to me than he had been the first time. He understood I was prosecuting him. But he did not insult me and he was not aggressive."

Half a year later Guzman succeeded in filing yet another indictment, this time for what was called Operation Colombo, during the course of which 119 Communist activists disappeared. Their bodies were never found. These legal proceedings, like others opened by other investigative judges, were not completed by the time Pinochet died. "These investigations did the country a great favor. They openly showed what had happened during the time of the dictatorship," says Guzman. "Many Chileans did not believe things like that had indeed happened, and thought they were an invention of the Communists. But when the investigations began, they started to believe. I believe that thanks to those investigations, my country will never again fall into a dictatorship. In Spanish we say nunca mas – never again."

Professor Sznajder agrees. "Guzman\’s importance was that he tried to get to Pinochet, not as a journalist or as a political opponent, but rather by virtue of the authority of democratic law. He contributed to eliminating Chile\’s black hole, to erasing the second version of what had happened during those years. He touched upon the most painful things, opened wounds, uncovered facts and brought about a change, even if no verdict was obtained."

Guzman has no doubt that like Pinochet\’s officers and officials, Israeli officers and officials will pay the price of the crimes he believes are being committed against the Palestinians. "If we learn from history, it appears that ultimately those who commit crimes against humanity and violate human rights are judged, whether by a special international court or in a country. Sooner or later, human right violations come to court," he says.

During his trip, Guzman visited two Palestinian families whose homes in Issawiyeh and A-Tur were demolished. One of the families has been living in a tent near the ruins for two weeks.

"I saw them crying. Every home demolition is the demolition of a person\’s dignity and intimacy, and is prohibited by international law. I have also seen the wall built in occupied territory. I don\’t understand this, and I don\’t believe it is connected to security. It isn\’t logical. I am certain there are other ways to protect the Israelis, and at the same time, the Palestinians must be protected.

"I admire the Jewish people for the suffering it has endured and for its achievements in science, literature and music," he continues. "I identify with the Israelis, but my heart is with the people living under occupation and whose rights are being violated. Israel feels it is the victim of terror, but when you are here, you realize that what the Palestinians are doing is resisting occupation. The Palestinians are the victims, they are being exploited, their homes are being demolished, they are being detained under administrative orders, their property is being damaged, they need permits to move from place to place and their cities are becoming large prisons. There is no doubt they are the victims."

Guzman does not make any commitment that indictments will be filed against those responsible for demolishing homes. "I will study the issue, I will consult and I will see how the process can be advanced," he says, "but there is no doubt that with respect to international law, civilians directly responsible for human rights violations can be indicted, just like soldiers."

Meir Margalit, the field coordinator for ICAHD and the person who invited Guzman to visit Israel, says he has despaired of the Israeli justice system. "We feel we have exhausted the option of an Israeli investigator. Salvation won\’t come from here, and things are getting worse. Every year, about 400 houses in East Jerusalem and the territories are demolished."

"I am here on a peace mission," says Guzman. "I want my activities to awaken discussion of whether what is happening here is justified. From the Chilean experience, we know activity like this can cease human rights violations. I implore the Israeli government to stop the house demolitions, for the sake of its good reputation and for the sake of the good reputation of the entire human race."

( Feb 13, 2007)

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