The Pinochet affair: British envoy braced for left backlash

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JOYFUL SUPPORTERS of former dictator Augusto Pinochet honked their car horns in the streets of Santiago yesterday as news of the British High Court decision reached Chile.

The British embassy, which had received hundreds of death threats from the pro-Pinochet side last week, this time braced for a backlash from leftists and relatives of the Pinochet regime's victims. Embassy sources said they were prepared for anti-British demonstrations as news of the court ruling spread.

Chilean television stations went live on the air around lunchtime after the news broke, prompting the horn-honking, particularly in the wealthier east of the capital including the Bosque Norte avenue that runs past the British embassy.

Television and radio commentators immediately raised the question of whether the ailing 82-year retired general and "senator-for-life" would be tried if he returns. Despite a dozen civil suits against him in Chile, he has never faced trial, largely due to an inept judicial system and his continuing clout in the military, big business and the powerful right wing. Women who lost husbands or sons during his 1973-90 military rule took to the streets to protest against the London ruling.

They carried photographs of their loved ones, most of whom were "disappeared" by agents of General Pinochet's dreaded military intelligence service Dina, and placards reading "Donde estan?" (Where are they?)

"We're disappointed but our struggle will go on," said Sola Sierra, president of the Group of Families of Disappeared Detainees (AFDD). "We were always cautious about justice prevailing. We've seen it fail so often in our own country.

"There are always judges who have a proclivity for succumbing to pressures. We think that's what happened in England."

Mrs Sierra, whose communist husband Waldo Pizarro disappeared in 1976, said: "At least, for the first time the dictator has been detained and facing justice. Now remember this, the majority of the right here based their argument for freeing Pinochet on the fact that 'he can't be tried abroad, it's not right, he can only be tried on his home soil'. So let's see if they're consequential now and say the same if he returns. Don't hold your breath."

"I'm disappointed, but at least it was nice to see him detained," said Gladys Marin, leader of the Chilean Communist Party, who has tried to push a civil human rights suit against General Pinochet, only to see it blocked at every turn by judges who either support him or are afraid of him.

President Eduardo Frei called an urgent meeting of his inner cabinet. Mr Frei, who had pushed for General Pinochet's release, was said to be "happy and satisfied" with the High Court ruling. But analysts said he may now find himself in the delicate position of having to back calls for trying the retired general in Chile. Many Chileans are also suggesting the former dictator should not be allowed to return to his lifetime Senate seat.

"If he's too old to be tried, he's too old to legislate," is a common comment.

Detention Of

A Dictator

September 22

General Augusto Pinochet, 82, is welcomed in Britain by the Foreign Office after back problems during flight from Chile.

September 30

Pinochet told he will be incapacitated unless he has emergency surgery on his back.

October 5

Has drinks with Baroness Thatcher.

October 9

Undergoes surgery at the London Clinic, near Harley Street.

October 14

Madrid court contacts Metropolitan Police about Pinochet's presence in Britain.

October 16

Pinochet arrested after magistrates at Bow Street, London, issue a provisional arrest warrant under the Extradition Act 1989, citing the offence of murder.

October 26

State authorities in Geneva request Pinochet's arrest over the 1977 disappearance of a Swiss-Chilean student, Alexis Jaccard.

October 28

Pinochet wins his High Court battle.