IT IS NEVER too late to seek justice. So there is reason to applaud Chilean Judge Juan Guzman, who on Monday declared Chile's 89-year-old former military dictator, Augusto Pinochet, fit to stand trial for the killing and "permanent kidnapping" of a few of the thousands who perished at the hands of his regime.
Most of the men and women tortured and murdered by Pinochet's secret police were rounded up shortly after his military coup of Sept. 11, 1973. Those crimes are old. And Chile has developed into a stable democracy since 1990, when Pinochet finally yielded the reins of power. Nevertheless, there must be no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity.
Impunity for Pinochet's crimes would be not merely a failure to do justice for survivors and kin of the victims; it would also sacrifice the deterrent power of the law.
For just as Pinochet and comparable Latin American dictators of his era were reviving the themes of European fascism from an earlier time, Pinochet's own disdain for democratic legality is sure to remain a permanent temptation for other Pinochets in other places.
For Americans, there is -- or should be -- a particular poignancy in Judge Guzman's prosecution of crimes Pinochet ordered in the name of his own war against what he saw as terrorism. The terrorists he had his secret police hunt down were socialists and communists, students, union activists, journalists, writers, and teachers. Americans were among his victims. And in the name of a global struggle against international communism, American administrations in the epoch of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Gerald Ford colluded with Pinochet's supplanting Chile's elected left-wing government.
There is a special relevance in the specific charges that Judge Guzman ruled can be brought against Pinochet. These concern his role in the regional conspiracy among Latin American dictators called Operation Condor. Under Condor, fugitives who had escaped from the secret police in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia could be captured by one of the other conspirators' security services and sent back to the torture centers in their home countries.
The 1976 car-bomb murder in Washington, D.C., of a former Chilean ambassador, Orlando Letellier, and his American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, was part of Operation Condor. And Judge Guzman has said he has evidence that Pinochet attended meetings in Chile in 1975 at which military intelligence and secret police from six Southern Cone dictatorships gathered to launch Condor.
Old crimes like Pinochet's need to be prosecuted not to punish an old man but to help prevent similar crimes being committed at a later time in another place.