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The Financial Times, 22.5.00

Pinochet shadow hangs over Chile. By Mark Mulligan in Santiago

When Chile's four military commanders met during a high-profile lunch at a Santiago restaurant recently, it was clear that one of the items on the menu was the fate of General Augusto Pinochet.

The former dictator, who spent 14 months detained in the UK on an extradition warrant to Spain, is expected on Wednesday to learn if he is to retain the senatorial privilege that could protect him from prosecution for human rights abuses during his 17-year rule.

After a stalemate three weeks ago, the 22-member court of appeals will reconvene to decide whether or not charges being prepared against Gen Pinochet are serious enough to warrant his being stripped of the privileges.

Although the man himself has faded from public view, the military and hardline right-wingers are using the court case to resist inevitable constitutional reform that will put an end to special treatment for the armed forces. As it stands, the defence ministry, which is stacked with uniformed officers, has no effective control of the military.

In the national congress, where the right still enjoys a slim majority in the upper house, the opposition is also threatening to hold up the government's legislative programme until "the atmosphere has improved".

Repeated attempts to reach consensus on a labour reform bill, for example, have been dogged by the Pinochet case, and a meeting scheduled between President Ricardo Lagos and opposition leaders on this and other themes was last week suspended amid the furore over the lunch.

The restaurant meeting, in full view of the public and press photographers, was designed to show unity in support of the ailing Gen Pinochet, whose family and lawyers say is mentally unfit to endure another minute of justice.

The response from Ricardo Lagos, the country's new leftwing president and himself a victim of the military junta, was swift and barbed.

"Let's not be näve - we all know what they were after," he said. However, he added, "there is no need for anyone to be shown that the armed forces are united, because they are united - behind the President of Chile."

The ironic riposte worked, eliciting an immediate clarification from one of the diners, but the incident was yet another example of the disquiet among current and former generals, not just because of the fall of their figurehead, but because of lack of money, outdated equipment and a tarnished public image.

A failed coup attempt in Paraguay on Friday gave President Lagos, on an official state visit to Argentina, another chance to make clear his position on unruly generals, declaring unconditional support for the government of Luis Gonzalez Macchi.

On Sunday night, during his annual address to the nation, the Chilean president reiterated promises to curb the armed forces' power through constitutional reform.

"For the first time in 30 years the Chilean armed forces are up against the wall, and they know it," said the military attache at one foreign embassy in Santiago.

This enfeebled state, and the indefinite suspension of at least one large weapons purchase, has forced the military to help human rights lawyers and Juan Guzmán, the crusading special magistrate, track the remains of some of the estimated 1,000 people who disappeared without trace during the dictatorship.

Those serving time or under arrest for the disappearances, and more high-profile cases such as the assassination of Chileans on foreign soil, are now talking to prosecutors and naming names.

An Argentine judge is preparing a case against Gen Pinochet himself for the assassination of Gen Carlos Prats, who was exiled across the Andes after clashing with the dictator.

"I think the writing is on the wall for those who were at the top," said one US lawyer linked to investigations into the case of Orlando Letelier, the former leftwing minister killed by agents of the Chilean secret police in a car bomb attack in Washington in 1976.

Sergio Arellano Stark, a retired general under house arrest for the past year for human rights abuses, is the latest of Gen Pinochet's men to talk publicly about the bloody two months that followed the military coup.

He has been charged in connection with the notorious "Caravan of Death" operation, where a high-level military squad travelled the length of Chile in helicopters trying, torturing and "disappearing" political prisoners.

Few doubt that General Pinochet gave the orders that resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths and numerous cases of torture, and all the polls suggest that a majority of Chileans still believe he should be tried.

What the polls do not say is that most Chileans are quietly putting their faith for national reconciliation in the poor health of the 84-year-old Gen Pinochet, and hopes of his imminent death.

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