On the occasion of General Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in London in October 1998, his former Minister for Home Affairs, Sergio Onofre Jarpa, appalled by the demonstrations against the general on the streets around Westminster, expressed his desire to “make a movie” to educate international public opinion about what really happened in Chile under military rule.

Ten years later, one could say that with The Judge and the General, by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco, Mr. Jarpa’s wish has come true, though not necessarily along the lines he would have liked. The documentary, recently nominated for an Emmy award (the Oscars of the television industry) in the category of “Outstanding Historical Programming,” was released in 2008 and shown in the widely seen Point of View programme on PBS. The News and Documentary Emmys will be announced on September 21 in New York City.

Many would say the co-directors — Ms Farnsworth, an American journalist with the upmarket McNeil-Lehrer Report, and Mr. Lanfranco, a Chilean reporter — both with a long record of work covering human rights abuses, fully deserve the award.

The story is told from the perspective of Juan Guzmán Tapia, Justice of the Santiago Court of Appeals who, in January 1998, was assigned, by the luck of a draw, to handle the criminal cases filed against Gen. Pinochet. In March that year, the latter would leave his position as Army Chief to join the Senate as a Senator-for-life, a job he allotted to himself in the 1980 Constitution written under his guidance.

As the narrative unfolds — told not by some omniscient voice, but rather by Judge Guzmán and other protagonists, which adds to its credibility, as does the real-time footage of his investigation — one senses the changes from his initial scepticism to subsequent horror at the findings he uncovers (under Chile’s previous criminal justice system, only recently changed, the judge acted as both prosecutor and magistrate).

Coming from an upper middle class background, the son of noted writer and diplomat Juan Guzmán Cruchaga — who won Chile’s 1962 National Literature Prize and headed Chile’s mission in India in the early 1950s — with military men among his ancestors, and married to a Frenchwoman, Inés, Judge Guzmán’s life embodied in many ways what the Chilean judiciary during the dictatorship was all about, albeit with a more cosmopolitan touch.

Politically conservative, he supported the candidacy of right-wing Jorge Alessandri in the 1970 elections won by Salvador Allende (he even points out that had Alessandri won, he would have followed in his father’s footsteps to the Foreign Service). He also welcomed the 9/11 1973 military coup that brought Gen. Pinochet to La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace (though the latter did not move in there till 1980; it took seven years to rebuild it, given the damage inflicted by bombings from the Hawker Hunter planes that hit it repeatedly that fateful day).

During the military regime, Judge Guzmán pursued his judicial career, including postings to faraway provincial towns. He kept his distance from the attempts of human rights defenders to obtain protection from the Chilean judiciary, believing in Gen. Pinochet’s line about the need to “get rid of the Marxist cancer.” Some 10,000 habeas corpus petitions were submitted in those years. They were rejected, some by Judge Guzmán himself.

As he gets deeper into the cases, he realises how many victims, including quite a few of the detenidos-desaparecidos (that is, the “disappeared”), were not even political leaders as such, but rather young, emblematic figures — artists like singer Víctor Jara or academics like the 23-year-old sociologist, Manuel Donoso (whose case is one of the two cases that drive the narrative). They were surgically targeted in operations like the infamous “Caravan of Death” that traversed Chile from North to South in late 1973, shooting some 97 detainees.

The story goes that whenever his staff brought the CVs of candidates for any given position in his government, Gen. Pinochet’s first question was: “Who is the youngest?” He invariably proceeded to appoint him or her, a policy that served the Chilean Right well. At some point in the late 1990s, after Chile’s return to democracy, it was estimated that about half of the Right-wing opposition MPs had served as appointed mayors during the military regime. Tragically, a similar policy of targeting the youngest seemed to be at work with his opponents.

It is, then, from this gradual “eye-opening” of Judge Guzmán that the film inserts glimpses of President Allende’s victory, the ensuing polarisation, classic scenes such as that of Argentine cameraman Leonardo Henrichsen, who films his own death at the hands of the soldiers who revolted in June 1973, the 1973 coup, and the dark years that follow.

Curiously, the film does not dwell on what would turn out to be one of the key challenges facing Judge Guzmán. In 1978, the junta approved an Amnesty Law, whose net effect was to extinguish all responsibility for human rights violations committed from the day of the coup onwards. The overwhelming majority of violations, though by no means all, were committed in those years.

What to do?

Judge Guzmán, behind whose modest, unassuming demeanour (typically dressed in grey), hides a razor-sharp legal mind, came up with a brilliant solution. In the case of the “disappeared,” it was not a crime that could be characterised as having been completed (say, like a homicide), but one that was still unfolding (like kidnapping). As no bodies were available and as long as no remains were found, the presumption had to be that the crime was still taking course. It was thus not covered by the 1978 Amnesty Law. The rather crude attempts to puncture this impeccable legal reasoning (“Everybody knows they are dead! Who is Judge Guzmán fooling?”) found few takers.

In this, a deep irony was at work. To make his opponents (the cells of the “Marxist cancer”) disappear, a technique — some say invented by Gen. Pinochet, though it was later applied elsewhere in the Southern Cone as well — had as its main purpose spreading terror. The sudden disappearance of a loved one is something that has a lasting effect on family, friends and associates, sowing eternal doubts about an eventual return. The impact of it is very different from, say, the overt shooting of the victim, followed by his funeral.

The fact that one of the main instruments of state terrorism would end up gestating the key legal tool to bring those perpetrators to justice has a poetic ring to it. Judge Guzmán, the son of a noted poet, himself fully trilingual — he wrote his memoirs, Au bord du monde, in French — and a man who knows his literature (he likes to cite Shakespeare in his lectures, being especially fond of Macbeth) must have appreciated this.

At a time when events in Honduras have revived concerns at the return of military coups in Latin America, it is worth noting that in this too, Gen. Pinochet tried to innovate. To the classic offer of a plane to the deposed President, so that he could leave the country (much as happened with President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, though he was rather forcibly taken to it), such a central part of the stage setting of golpes militares, Gen. Pinochet in 1973 added a twist: the plane would fall shortly after taking off, thus taking the life of Salvador Allende, had he accepted that devious gambit.

To listen to the tape of the telephone conversation between Gen. Pinochet and Admiral Patricio Carvajal (his subsequent Foreign Minister under the junta) about this plan, and Pinochet’s phrase, a Chilean idiom that reflects him wholeheartedly (“if you kill the bitch, you get rid of the litter”) is one of the most chilling moments in a film in which they abound.

Upon returning from London in March 2000, Gen. Pinochet was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and he spent the next six years fighting off one lawsuit after another. Though never convicted, he died on December 10, 2006 (in another irony, on International Human Rights Day) with his reputation in tatters. Today, some 50 of his former military and civilian collaborators — including, unprecedented in any dictatorship, the head of the secret police, General Manuel (“Mamo”) Contreras — are behind bars. Another 200 await trial.

Paradoxically, Judge Guzmán paid dearly for his bravery and judicial ingenuity. Despite his talent and trajectory, he was not promoted to the Chilean Supreme Court, the aspiration of every judge, and he retired as Justice of the Santiago Court of Appeals. He no longer teaches at the Law Faculty of Catholic University, but directs a Human Rights Centre at the more modest Central University. Yet, he earned his place in history as the judge who took on and brought to justice one of the emblematic dictators of the 20th century.

Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.