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(Santiago, Chile) - Returning home after a year's absence, I am astonished at the change. On the eve of the anniversary of the arrest last Oct. 16 of Augusto Pinochet, Chilean democracy has weathered the storm.

Last October, the country was reeling from the decision of British authorities to hold General Pinochet in London, not for any crime committed in England or in Spain, where a warrant had originated, but for the murder or disappearance of 3,000 civilians during his military dictatorship in Chile in the 70's and 80's. Some Chileans were laying siege to the British and Spanish embassies while others celebrated the arrest as a moral victory. There were fears of a return to the polarization and instability of the 1970's.

Apart from a noisy minority, most Chileans today seem comfortable with the prosecution of General Pinochet. Polls show a majority now believe he should be brought to justice, although there is disagreement about whether justice should be administered at home or abroad. Neither presidential candidate in December's election is focusing much attention on his fate.

There is one vitally important way, however, in which the arrest has wrought dramatic change. A year ago, the Chilean government's assertion that it would judge General Pinochet's crimes at home did not pass the most basic credibility test. Today, Chilean courts have discovered the injustices suffered by his victims. For the first time, they have sidestepped the 1978 amnesty law intended to shield the military. They have reinterpreted that law, ruling that because relatives of the ''disappeared'' live in constant torment, not knowing the fate of their loved ones who were taken away during the Pinochet regime, the disappearances are a continuing crime, extending beyond the years covered by the amnesty. The general's subordinates inside Chile are facing human rights trials.

General Pinochet remains one of the most powerful men in Chile, with the unstinting loyalty of the armed forces. Despite continuing political obstacles, Chile is moving toward a day when it might be possible for its courts to prosecute even him. In the meantime, the precedent set by the cooperation of Britain in the Spanish prosecution opens up new possibilities for the exercise of universal jurisdiction for crimes recognized around the world to be violations of human rights.

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