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Pinochet's Legacy Dims Under Cloud of Corruption, Abuse Probes

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page A14

SANTIAGO, Chile -- The Eternal Flame of Liberty, christened by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1975, was one of the most visible monuments to his dictatorship. Recently, it was extinguished without fanfare during renovations outside the presidential palace, and the government does not plan to relight it.

Today, very little associated with Pinochet's 17-year rule is proving eternal.

_____Special Report_____
Pinochet and the Law

The ailing retired general, 89, is the target of multiple judicial investigations into allegations of murder, torture and secret foreign bank accounts full of stolen money.

This month, lawmakers proposed a measure to erase his signature from the country's constitution. The Pinochet Foundation, an organization in Santiago that promotes his legacy, recently had its bank accounts frozen as part of investigations into Pinochet's financial dealings. In late January, Gen. Manuel Contreras, the retired head of Pinochet's secret police force, was hauled to prison as protesters pelted him with eggs.

"There's definitely a sense of momentum against Pinochet," said Sebastian Brett, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Santiago. "Even if the realists say that it's unlikely he'll ever actually go behind bars himself, his inner circle -- like Contreras -- is now falling, and that seems like the next best thing."

Still, Pinochet is praised by some Chileans who say his free-market reforms helped their economy become one of the strongest in Latin America. And in recent months, some have begun to question whether the pursuit of criminal charges against Pinochet and his military commanders has stretched on too long.

"All the work Pinochet did is intact," said Christian Labbe, a former army colonel and one of Pinochet's closest advisers. "Nobody is fighting to change the free market that we built, not even the Socialists. We need to give credit to the person who made all of this."

The Supreme Court three weeks ago ordered that charges in more than 350 pending investigations against Pinochet's military government be filed within six months. The action was intended to speed up cases that have lingered in the investigative stage for years, leaving those accused in legal limbo. But human rights groups argue that the deadline could result in valid cases being dropped and abuses going unpunished.

"It's absolutely illegal, and cases will be lost," said Patricia Silva Soto, president of an advocacy group called Relatives of Victims of Political Executions. "These are crimes against humanity, and they shouldn't impose any sort of statute of limitations on them."

Many in the government said viewing the six-month target as a strict deadline was a mistake, and Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza said worthy cases would be granted extensions by the courts.

"We've been at this for so long, it would be completely silly to put an artificial end to it," Insulza said. "But at some point, formal charges have to be brought against a person."

The order came a week after German Barriga Munoz, a former army general charged in the disappearance of nine leaders of the Chilean Communist Party in 1976, jumped to his death from a Santiago apartment building. His suicide note suggested that he felt hounded by inquiries into the case and by demonstrations held outside his house.

Retired military personnel rallied around the issue and argued that it was time to end what they consider inhumane persecution. They contended that monetary reparations, approved by the government after the November release of a report detailing the torture and imprisonment of more than 27,000 Chileans, should allow the country to move beyond its past.

"After the suicide note was in the newspapers, finally attention was paid to a subject that we've been talking about for 20 years," Labbe said. "We need to finish this. It's not necessary to destroy the past to build the future.

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