When Lord Bingham became the best friend of the well dressed

The tragedy of Chile is that absolution has been granted without confession, amnesty without disclosure
Click to follow
PERHAPS IT is the strangulating, dry heat of summer that is keeping the crowds down, or maybe they have, for the moment, spent what passion they have. Whatever it is, the demonstrations and riots on the streets of Santiago have shrunk in size and intensity.

Both left and right seem to have backed away from the political grandstanding of recent weeks. The students have been marching, but their nightly jousts with the police are tame affairs. Neither side seems keen to really hurt the other, and so they race around the streets, exchanging insults and choking together in the clouds of tear gas. Most of these youngsters were not even born when Pinochet came to power, but they did grow up in his shadow. They carry photographs of the dead and disappeared: the leftists and radicals and protesters of a lost generation whose grainy black-and- white images flash out of the tear-gas smoke like the faces of ghosts.

These days it is the right that feels most pleased with itself. To stand among the crowds outside the Pinochet Foundation when the High Court decision was announced was to be bathed in righteous exaltation. Suddenly, Lord Bingham was the best friend of every well dressed man and woman who cheered in the bright sunshine. All of a sudden it was permissible to admit to working for a British organisation.

Foreign reporters are no longer quizzed fiercely about their country of origin. Not like last week, when a South African colleague was forced to produce his passport to prove to an angry right-winger that he was not a son of Albion. The big sign denouncing Britain's insult to Chilean dignity has been removed from the street facing Her Majesty's embassy. Even the woman in the garden of the Pinochet Foundation who denounced me as a lying communist swine seemed to be going through the motions.

The irony was, of course, lost on the General's friends. They shouted their support for the primacy of law, and cheered the victory of legal argument. All of this for a man whose contempt for those principles was notorious, even by the bleak standards of Latin America. The man whose regime executed and tortured thousands, and arrested and detained thousands more without trial, was lucky to face the judges of a democratic state. Lord Bingham and his Appeal Court colleagues judged Pinochet not by his own standards, but by the letter of British law.

Even Pinochet's former victims, including Dr Patricio Bustos and his wife Maria Cecilia, accepted that the court's decision was a consequence of legal and not political determination. The Bustos family have strong reasons to despise the dictator. They are still struggling with the legacy of his torture centres. On the day after the decision was announced, Dr Bustos took me to visit a "Peace Park" in the suburbs of Santiago. When we got there, he explained that the green lawns, the fountain, the modernist sculptures were relatively recent creations. In another time, the Parque Por la Paz was known as the Villa Grimaldi, a torture centre run by the agents of General Pinochet's Directorate of National Intelligence, Dina.

Back in the Seventies, the Villa Grimaldi was a round-the-clock prison of pain. The doctor remembered being brought there one night, after being arrested at his home. He was stripped naked, beaten and chained to an iron bed frame. Then the electrodes came out and the electric shocks began. In another part of the building, his wife was being given the same treatment. Night became day, became night again. Friends were brought in for torture. Some vanished, never to be seen again. For seven months the doctor was tortured. Eventually, he and his wife were freed and exiled to Italy. He showed me a photograph taken shortly after their arrival in Rome: they are sitting in a field somewhere in the Italian countryside. He is playing a guitar, an angry expression on his face. Beside him, Maria looks dreamy and sad; her eyes are fixed on some distant point beyond the camera's range.

That night, over drinks at their suburban home, Dr Maria told the story of her sadness. It happened that when she was taken into custody, Maria was pregnant with the couple's first child. Like her husband, she was stripped and beaten. Like him, she was subjected to electric shock torture. She survived, but the child that was growing inside her did not. The baby would have been 22 years old this year. Before she told me the story, Dr Maria asked her teenage daughter and 20-year-old son to leave the room. She had yet to tell her children the full story of her torture at the Villa Grimaldi.

The doctor and his wife know who the torturers were. There were holes in Maria's blindfold and she was able to make out several of the faces standing above her as she twisted in agony. The torturers are, of course, free. In Chile there has been no reckoning for the past, nor has there been any meaningful process of revelation. What happened is that Pinochet and his cronies demanded a bribe from the people of Chile: give us amnesty if you want democracy. It was an offer the politicians could not refuse. And so the goons of the Villa Grimaldi slipped into the shadows, knowing there would be no reckoning. That has been the bitterest pill for the Bustos family to swallow.

Not that such pain impacts on the supporters of the right in Britain, who have been falling over themselves to praise Pinochet. Just as there are those on the left who blindly refuse to recognise the evil crimes of Stalin, Hoxha, Ceaucescu, Mao and friends, so the right closes its eyes to the monstrous sins of Pinochet. Order, stability, prosperity, they chant. The man was a veritable saint. A friend of Britain in time of need, said Lady Thatcher. She forgets that we sought his assistance because another dictatorship had abused the human rights of the Falkland Islanders. Remember, back then, all that fine talk about liberty and the need to stand up against the brutal junta of Galtieri.

Pinochet was not a corrupt dictator, at least not in the financial sense. But he held power on precisely the same basis as Galtieri - by force of arms. That is what dictators do. Be they creatures of the left or right, their power is based on a cynical contempt for the will of the people. Now, I've spent long enough reporting the ambiguities of divided societies to know that the politics of retribution can be very dangerous. And I know that if Chile's democrats had tried to pursue a vendetta against the military and police, the fragile democracy would have been torn asunder.

But the tragedy of Chile is that amnesty has taken place without disclosure, absolution has been granted without confession. How different from South Africa, whose Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported its findings this week. The commission may have been flawed, and there will be many families who feel cheated by the amnesty process. But it has achieved one crucial success: it is now impossible to deny the terror and indignities of the past. The cruelty and pain are on record, written in the words of victim and perpetrator alike.

It may well be that Pinochet, like other dictators, both left and right, escapes criminal sanction. The world is the world, after all. But his arrest has comforted the survivors of torture and the families of the disappeared. If nothing else, the General will know what it is like to lose the sweet gift of freedom, even if just for a few weeks, even if he is confined in a comfortable hospital room. His arrest has shown that the dead faces of the past cannot be air-brushed away, that the voices that screamed out in the Villa Grimaldi are still capable of touching us.

Fergal Keane is a special correspondent for BBC News