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Chilean Judge Juan Guzman - The man who brought General Pinochet to justice
By Roger Burbach
25 February 2001
Judge Juan Guzman is a paradoxical figure. A social conservative born into an aristocratic family, his judicial rulings reveal a compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Guzman is also related to some of Chile's oldest military families and he supported the military coup in 1973, believing the country needed "order". But his prosecution of the very man who led that coup, Augusto Pinochet, has shaken the country's conservative institutions, including its political and business organizations as well as the military.
Fluent in English, the 62-year-old Guzman spent much of his youth in Washington D.C. where his father served as Chilean ambassador. Somewhat reserved, he possesses an innate charisma manifested more in the way he listens and treats you than in what he says. The poorer or humbler the person who walked into the judicial chamber where I was interviewing Guzman, the more likely he was to stop the interview in order to help out. When a woman in rumpled and tattered clothing, probably in her eighties, entered the room to give a deposition in the Pinochet case, Guzman immediately rose to his feet, saying "she needs help so she feels at ease here".
In his youthful years, Guzman was not involved in protest politics, nor did he participate in any of the Chilean political movements. After completing his law degree at the conservative Catholic University of Chile, he went to Paris for an advanced degree at the Sorbonne University. Marrying a French woman who picked him up while hitchhiking, he returned to Chile in 1970, just as Salvador Allende was elected the first Socialist president of Chile. Guzman requested a local judicial appointment, which required the approval of the new government, and Allende, knowing Guzman's father, a renowned Chilean writer, decided to interview Guzman for the post. Allende reportedly asked him: "You don't agree with our political beliefs do you?" Guzman responded: "That is right, I don't." Expecting Allende would insist he join one of the political parties that backed the government, Allende instead said: "I will appoint you a judge if you swear never to abuse the poor." Astounded, Guzman said: "I swear it."
When Pinochet and the Chilean armed forces violently overthrew Allende on 11 September 1973, Guzman supported the coup, believing "it was going to be a moment of re-establishing order". It was not until much later that he began to realize "the crimes, torture, detention and persecution" that were committed. In 1976, he first became concerned with the number of "habeas corpuses" suits brought by family members of victims who had disappeared or died. Then in 1978, he was appointed to a criminal court in Santiago. In the court records he found "hundreds of photographs of people, poor people, poor women that had been simply shot in the streets".
Although unnerved by these and subsequent experiences, he never openly opposed the Pinochet regime. Nor did he support the Catholic Church's patriarch in Santiago, Cardinal Raul Silva, a pivotal leader of the human rights movement against the dictatorship. Guzman has never felt comfortable with the changes in the Catholic Church that came with Vatican II and the Theology of Liberation, saying that the church "lost a great part of its mystery and the power it had, including the rituality and mysticism". Only today does he admit in a somewhat joking, self-deprecating manner, "I am starting to understand the new system of how mass is being done and why mass is done in the vernacular languages, but I do prefer the other way."
His first real judicial break with the regime came at the very end of Pinochet's rule in 1990, when he was selected by lottery along with another civilian judge and three military-appointed judges to preside over a martial law case involving an ex-intelligence officer accused of killing a union leader. The special tribunal ruled three to two to convict the officer and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
In early January 1998, months before Pinochet was first detained in London, Guzman was selected in another judicial lottery to hear the first charges brought against Pinochet, including the Caravan of Death. (This case led to Pinochet's house arrest in Chile last month [January 2001].) Guzman maintains that, even if Pinochet hadn't been held in London for 17 months before returning to Chile, "in this affair, I would have continued just like a train, something I started that I had to continue. I had a large amount of evidence in this case, over eight volumes of material".
Well before Pinochet's detention in London, Guzman asserts that in Chile "we had evolved as judges, I myself evolved". Guzman believes that "international opinion was something of a recognition, a moral support, that made us realize that we are in the era of human rights". It worked in tandem with the judicial process in Chile, but did not determine what happened there.
Guzman, in his pursuit of Pinochet, has even fended off pressures from the incumbent Socialist government of Ricardo Lagos. Worried by threats from the military and the pro-Pinochet business elites, the Lagos government tried to influence Guzman to go easy on Pinochet. "I was asked by one person from the government to order physical examinations," says Guzman. In Chile, only mental examinations are required to determine if a person is crazy or demented. "The idea", says Guzman, "was to apply the same system that was applied in London," so that Pinochet "would be ruled physically unfit to stand trial". In another instance, someone from the government asked Guzman "to revoke my decision indicting Pinochet". Guzman was incensed at these pressures, saying "I am a very stubborn man" and it ought to be a crime for a politician "to try to influence a judge".
Guzman's experiences as a judge and his compassion for the poor have also led to an evolution in his view of politics. He now believes it is not only the military officers who were responsible for what happened under Pinochet; the armed forces of Chile "have always been instructed by the plutocracy", the wealthy class. "In our country, anything can happen when the plutocracy feels that it is in danger of having its property touched." Guzman also condemns the United States for what occurred in Chile: "I blame the United States, because the United States teaches people to kill, prepares people for what is called la guerra subversiva, teaches people to torture and to fight these so-called subversive enemies."
Even today, Guzman says that the US government's assistance in prosecuting human rights cases "has been formal and very limited". Guzman has requested US help in detaining and interrogating Armando Fernandez Larios, a member of the Caravan of Death who now lives in Miami. "I have had no collaboration at all," says Guzman, regarding efforts to get just a deposition from him.
He recognizes that "it is practically impossible" to prosecute the plutocracy or the US officials who supported torture and murder during the Pinochet regime. "But I really do believe that, owing 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." He is confident that "one day human rights courts like the International Criminal Court will have an enormous role in preventing these things from ever happening".
*Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (Censa), Berkeley, USA.
by Roger Burbach
Center for the Study of the Americas (Censa), Berkeley, USA.

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