'I Am Not A Criminal'

Augusto Pinochet appeared a harmless senior citizen when aides wheeled him out of Santiago's military hospital a few weeks ago. The white-haired former dictator grinned broadly before disappearing into an armored Mercedes. He had reason to be cheery: Pinochet, 85, had just finished four days of medical tests that supporters believed would show him to be mentally unfit to stand trial for egregious human-rights violations committed during his 17-year reign. That would put an end to the legal woes and controversy that have dogged him for almost three years. Under Chilean law, it is illegal to prosecute a defendant doctors determine to be insane or demented.

But any thought that the old man could retire in peace proved premature. Last week eight doctors enlisted by Chilean courts to examine Pinochet produced a report declaring that he had "moderate dementia"--an evaluation that would likely mean he would avoid trial. But one of the medical experts, Canadian neurologist Luis Fornazzari, refused to sign the report. Instead, Fornazzari accused his colleagues of "changing the diagnosis without telling me." The original diagnosis, he claimed, said that Pinochet suffered only "mild to moderate dementia." "There is no question at all that he is fit to stand trial," Fornazzari told NEWSWEEK. Justice Minister Jose Antonio Gomez, hearing that Fornazzari had written a letter of complaint to the magistrate investigating Pinochet, called the doctor "irresponsible." Though a decision could come any day, the controversy appears to have delayed Judge Juan Guzman's ruling on whether Pinochet is healthy enough to stand trial.

It was the beginning of what would turn out to be a very bad week for the former strongman. Tuesday morning, Pinochet was forced to answer questions about his role in atrocities committed during his regime. For two hours the judge interrogated him at his secluded Santiago mansion about the notorious 1973 disappearances and murders of 75 suspected political opponents. (A court ruled in December that Guzman must depose Pinochet before he can officially indict him.) Dubbed the "Caravan of Death," the killings were carried out by the military in the weeks immediately following the coup that brought Pinochet to power. In the questioning, Pinochet admitted that the military committed the murders, but said he was not personally responsible. "I am not in any way a criminal," he said. "I in no moment ordered the killing of anybody." After the interview was released by the court, a Pinochet-era general, Joaquin Lagos, appeared on television to challenge Pinochet's claims. He alleged that the leader of the caravan was acting as Pinochet's "direct representative."

New medical problems soon followed. Late last week Pinochet suddenly went back to the hospital. Doctors said he had suffered symptoms consistent with a minor stroke. Pinochet left the hospital by helicopter Saturday and reportedly headed to his coastal estate.

Pinochet's current predicament would have seemed highly improbable a year ago. Calls from human-rights groups to prosecute him gained momentum in October 1998, when Spain requested his extradition and British authorities detained Pinochet in London for more than a year and a half. Pinochet escaped extradition on ground of poor health and was allowed to return home to Chile, but the standoff generated headlines around the world.

The international attention puts Chile under tremendous pressure to prove it can administer justice and confront its past. And the ex-dictator's support is shrinking by the day. In July 1999 the Supreme Court reinterpreted a 1978 amnesty law, decreed by Pinochet, that had barred prosecution for all human-rights crimes committed between 1973 and 1978. Since then, dozens of ex-Pinochet officials have been hauled into court. Under the new interpretation, they can be detained during the trial but still must be released even if found guilty once it ends. And earlier this month the military delivered a report to President Ricardo Lagos containing information on the whereabouts of the corpses of 180 of 1,197 people who disappeared during the Pinochet era.

If Judge Guzman rules that Pinochet is fit to stand trial, the ex-dictator would likely be placed under house arrest until the proceedings end. (With appeals factored in, experts say a trial should take six to 12 months.) Nonetheless, Pinochet could still elude the courts. Guzman earlier this month complained to foreign media that members of the government were pressuring him to dismiss the case on medical grounds. "The president has said we have three branches of power that are supposed to act independently. But in this case, that is obviously not happening," Guzman said. If convicted, Pinochet might still have some luck left. His 1978 amnesty law may yet keep him out of jail. But even if Pinochet escapes prosecution or prison, his image as an omnipotent strong man is dead. His once iron grip on Chile and its military establishment is gone. And his name is increasingly linked with the abuses of his regime. For many Chileans, it seems, history has already rendered its verdict.