March 2, 2001

Pinochet Judge Has Changed His Mind — Judiciously But Completely

By Roger Burbach

Judge Juan Guzman is a paradoxical figure — born into an aristocratic family and a social conservative, yet his rulings reveal compassion for the poor and oppressed.

Guzman supported the military coup against Salvador Allende in 1973, believing the country needed "order." Now he is prosecuting the man who led that coup, Augusto Pinochet. This has shaken the country's political and business organizations as well as the military.

Guzman, 62, spent much of his youth in Washington D.C. where his father served as Chilean ambassador and is fluent in English. His power is manifested more in the way he listens to and treats people than in what he says. When a woman in tattered clothing, probably in her eighties, entered to give a deposition, Guzman immediately rose to his feet, saying "she needs help so she feels at ease here."

As a young man, Guzman was not involved any political movements. He earned his law degree at Chile's conservative Catholic University, then went to Paris for an advanced degree. He married a French woman (who picked him up hitchhiking), and returned to Chile in 1970, just as Allende was elected the country's first Socialist president.

Guzman requested a local judicial appointment, which required government approval, and Allende, who knew Guzman's father, a renowned Chilean writer, interviewed Guzman for the post.

Allende asked, "You don't agree with our political beliefs do you?"

Guzman responded, "That is right, I don't," fully expecting Allende to insist he join one of the pro-government parties. When Allende said, "I will appoint you if you swear never to abuse the poor," an astonished Guzman said, "I swear it."

But Guzman's support of the 1973 coup faded slowly as he became aware of "the crimes, torture, detention, and persecution" committed. In 1976, he
became concerned about the large number of habeas corpus suits brought by relatives of those who had disappeared. And in 1978, he was appointed to a criminal court in Santiago where he found in the records "hundreds of photographs of people, poor people, poor women that had simply been shot in the streets."

Still, he never openly opposed the Pinochet regime, nor supported Cardinal Enrique Silva, a pivotal leader of the human rights movement against the dictatorship.

His first real break with the regime came in 1990, at the very end of Pinochet's rule. Guzman was selected by lot (along with another civilian and three military-appointed judges) to preside over a case involving an ex-intelligence officer accused of killing a union leader. They voted three to two to convict and sentenced the officer to 10 years in prison.

In early January, 1998, months before Pinochet was detained in London, Guzman was again picked by lot to hear the first charges brought against Pinochet.

Guzman maintains that he would have continued to work on this case even if Pinochet hadn't been held in London. It was "like a train," says Guzman, "something I started that I had to continue. I had a large amount of evidence in this case, over 8 volumes of material."

Guzman asserts that he and his colleagues have "evolved as judges." He believes "international opinion was something of a recognition, a moral support, that made us realize that we are in the era of human rights."

But there were other forces, including the incumbent Socialist government of Ricardo Lagos which, worried by threats from military and business elites, tried to influence Guzman to go easy on Pinochet.

Guzman says he was asked to order physical examinations, although they are not required in Chile. "The idea," he says, was to have Pinochet ruled unfit to stand trial. At one point, Guzman was even asked to revoke his indictment of Pinochet.

Guzman's political views have also evolved. He now believes that military officers alone were not responsible for what happened under Pinochet. Chile's armed forces "have always been instructed by the plutocracy. In our country, anything can happen when the plutocracy feels it is in danger of having its property touched."

Guzman also condemns the United States for teaching "people to kill, to torture and to fight these so-called subversive enemies." Even now, Guzman says, U.S. government assistance in prosecuting human rights cases "has been formal and very limited."

He recognizes "it is practically impossible" to prosecute the putocracy or U.S. officials. "But I really do believe that due to the globalization of human rights, with what has happened here in Chile, in Spain, in Nuremberg and other places in the world, it is going to be very difficult to have another coup d'etat in Chile."

Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas and author of "Globalization and Postmodern Politics: From Zapatistas to Hightech Robber Barons" (Pluto Press).

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