Mon, 14 Aug 2000

Nowhere to hide

Old age for Chile's former strongman Augusto Pinochet and Indonesia's former president Suharto looks much different from anything they had probably envisaged. These two distinguished men, each of whom fashioned himself as the savior of his country, are now rethinking their retirement plans. Instead of basking in the glory of a job well done and receiving the thanks of a grateful nation, they both face trial.

Pinochet's hopes for a quiet retirement were upset this week when Chile's supreme court voted 14-6 to strip him of his immunity from prosecution. Pinochet now faces charges associated with the deaths and disappearances of more than 3,000 people during his 17-year rule.

Pinochet may still avoid trial. He is 84 years old, and Chilean law stipulates that all defendants over the age of 70 must undergo a mental examination to ensure that they are fit to stand trial. Pinochet was sent home from Britain, where he was first detained, for "humanitarian reasons" when doctors there determined he was unfit for a sustained legal ordeal.

Half a world away, Suharto was feeling the reverberations of the "Pinochet Precedent". On the same day that the Chilean Supreme Court handed down its ruling, the Jakarta government formally filed charges against the former president. In them, Suharto was accusing of embezzling US$571 million from state-run foundations that were operated in his name during his 32 years in power.

Protesters are unlikely to be happy with the outcome of this case. The Indonesian government seems reluctant, at best, to prosecute. The former president may also be declared unfit for trial. President Abdurrahman Wahid has said that he would pardon Suharto if he is convicted of abuse of power.

Some victims and their families complain that the two men are getting off easy, and that they benefit from legal protections they denied their enemies. They miss the point.

Punishment is not the issue; justice is. These two men considered themselves above the law. They have been brought back to earth. Even if they do not face trial, they have been forced to suffer the indignity of being examined and labeled incompetent. Tyrants now know that they cannot hide from crimes they commit while in office.

Victims and their families will find solace in knowing that the perpetrators of crimes against them have been condemned for their acts. Some will be punished. Others will not, but they will no longer sleep as soundly as before.

-- The Japan Times, Tokyo