-- Michele Drouilly circled the towering Ombu tree at Villa Grimaldi, an idyllic park in the foothills of the snow-capped Andes mountains. The sound of chirping birds and playing children disguised a sense of eeriness.
"You look at this place today and it's a beautiful park, but you wouldn't imagine what happened here," said Drouilly.
Villa Grimaldi was the site of a secret police detention center in the 1970s during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Two hundred people died there, according to Drouilly and other family members, who say many more disappeared. Their relatives have turned Villa Grimaldi into a memorial to those who died. Drouilly's sister was one of them.
Drouilly stopped at a black marble wall that stands more than 20 feet high:
"My sister is there," she said, pointing to one of the names engraved on the memorial. "Jacqueline Pollet Yurich."
Drouilly said she was 17 years old when her eldest sister was arrested and detained for belonging to the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, or MIR, a militant anti-government group. It was 1973, shortly after Pinochet's military coup overthrew the socialist government of President Salvador Allende. More than 200,000 people were detained in a campaign to root out his opponents, according to official estimates.
"It took many years for us to realize that we were never going to see her again," she said. "To this day, my mother still has a suitcase prepared for her. . . . Justice I think is the only thing that can heal our wounds."
Now, decisions pending in the Chilean court system could hold the former dictator and members of his government responsible for human rights crimes committed during his 1973-1990 government.
On May 28, the Santiago Court of Appeals unexpectedly stripped Pinochet of his legal immunity. In 1998, a British court ordered Pinochet's house arrest while he was visiting London, but since his release for ill health and his return to Chile in 2000, the families of the dead had all but lost hope of seeing him prosecuted.
Pinochet's attorneys are appealing, and it is not clear whether Pinochet, 88, will ever face trial.
On the same day that the Court of Appeals issued its ruling, Chile's Supreme Court began considering another high-profile case involving the general amnesty decreed by Pinochet in 1978, which still protects the military and police officers involved in the repression that followed the 1973 coup. An estimated 3,200 people were killed or disappeared at the hands of the secret police.
Only a few military officers have been jailed for what the courts have labeled permanent kidnappings, not covered by the amnesty because they are considered ongoing crimes. The amnesty has shielded officials suspected of murder or torture.
An estimated 500 people could face prosecution if the appeal is successful, said Nelson Caucoto, the attorney who is leading the appeal against the amnesty law.
Attorney Juan Carlos Manns represents one of Pinochet's former officers.
"Our military personnel are stoic people," said Manns. "Here, the only social scandal is to not apply the law, and to make mistakes in its interpretation in order to right the wrongs of the past."
But many families have been waiting 30 years for justice.
Ximena Campos Barra straightened a crinkled plastic bag so she could better see the faded black and white photograph behind it.
"There he is. My little brother, Eduardo Campos," she said, unpinning the photo from her gray wool sweater that she takes to protests and to court proceedings.
Campos's brother was detained by the military in 1973. She and the rest of her family sought exile in Canada in 1975.
She said her brother's remains were identified in 1994, with the discovery of a mass grave. But she said the uncertainty of his fate continues to haunt her.
"My parents died never knowing . . . I find this the most perverse torture that you can inflict on a family," Campos said, adding that the recent developments in the Chilean courts are, however, giving her renewed hope that her brother's killers could yet be convicted.
This is the first case related to deaths and disappearances during the dictatorship to reach the Supreme Court, providing new hope to the families of victims.
"It would be a precedent," said Drouilly, admitting she is suffering from insomnia from the weight of this case. "This has me very scared. I'm coming undone. I have so much anxiety over it."
Campos, Drouilly and others say the promise of justice is worth going through yet another legal process as they hope for closure.