Does it matter, finally, whether Pinochet is convicted of the crime with which he is charged? A lot of ground, after all, has been gained and yesterday's judgment offers no comment on his guilt or innocence.
He is no longer the grim dictator with the power of life and death over his subjects. He can no longer travel with his army's checkbook to be received as an honored guest at British arms fairs. Like his friend Margaret Thatcher, his time has gone and the general's era is a fading historical unpleasantness.
What does it really signify if yesterday's appeal court ruling becomes an armistice in the legal trench warfare that this case has become? In one sense it does not matter. Since the general's arrest in London, his image inside Chile and internationally has steadily slide. His supporters can no longer pretend, even to themselves, that he is other than a figure of international notoriety and they have been forced to retreat from triumphalism to a posture of resentful victimhood. Even if Pinochet were eventually to be sentenced, he will never be put behind bars. Would it be better, then, to call it a day now, before the pathos of his appearance rouses a sympathy he never extended to his victims? Perhaps that moment may come, but it has not come yet. Lawyers for the victims in Chile will, quite rightly, appeal the decision.
Putting Pinochet on trial is not a simple question of bringing a case against an old man with a criminal past. It has been the instrument of rebuilding a system of justice in Chile that had been dismantled by a dictator and refashioned to protect the guilty and to allow the innocent to be punished with impunity. It had become a means of suppressing the truth, not of revealing it.
It is no great surprise. That is what dictators do. All but the crudest like to dress their power in the symbols of legality - constitutions and laws, courts and judges, all carefully constructed to reinforce the illegitimate use of power in the interests of the few. When the dictatorship stepped back from the direct exercise of power, a half-democracy was left in its place, a system designed by the dictatorship and warped by the regime's distortions. Pinochet and his supporters held on to a real residual power, lest there be any backsliding towards unpleasant notions of truth and justice.
This half-democracy was buttressed with a series of lies designed to create a his toric justification for the dictatorship, a false version of history that cast assassins as heroes and their victims as murderers. At the top of this structure, like a perverse fairy on a Christmas tree, sat Pinochet himself, in the monstrously implausible role of savior of the nation.
When Judge Juan Guzman indicted Pinochet, he struck a lethal blow at this parallel universe. The case against the ex-dictator became the instrument not simply of justice for the victims, but of the beginning of a restoration not only of the legal system but of history. The story a nation tells itself has profound effects on its people. It can make them feel discontent and aggressive. It can make them tolerant and united. A story built on falsehood can poison their lives and dreams for generations. There was a truth commission in Chile and no doubt its members did the best they could. But the truth it tried to tell was still locked up in the power structures of the dictatorship. What emerged was a half-truth, a story without names or faces, a story that assigned no clear responsibility and was used to fortify impunity. It brought neither peace nor justice to the relatives of victims who did not know on what pretext their loved ones had been killed, or where their bodies were hidden.
Since the Pinochet case began, a different kind of truth has begun to emerge: a forensic truth, a story made up of dates and descriptions, of detailed evidence and bad memories that have been forced into daylight by the legal instruments the judge has not hesitated to use. Justice became a means of retelling history, and the assertion of the court's right to insist on the truth became a symbol of the renewed supremacy of the people against an arbitrary power that had demanded not only that they submit but that they believe.
It has been a painful passage for the discredited heroes of Pinochet's phony war. But the child who can now be permitted to say out loud that the grandfather he never knew was not a criminal has had his right to live at peace with his country restored to him.
The symbolic power of the legal battle over Pinochet goes far beyond the question of how he spends what life remains to him. Yesterday's decision owes more to political pressure than to legal judgment. If it stands it will testify to the fact that Chile's courts are still not ready to assert one of the most basic premises of justice - that in a healthy democracy, nobody is above the law.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001