The Pinochet Affair: Next stop for the old General - Plumstead

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The Independent Online
THE BLEAK lowlands known as the Plumstead Marshes are flat and grey, broken only by the brooding hulk of Belmarsh Prison. On a dull December day it would be hard to think of anywhere in greater contrast to the urbane sophistication of the Presidential Palace in central Santiago.

Yet later today, Augusto Pinochet - senator, general, former dictator and sometime Santiago resident - will appear at the modern magistrates court next to the jail - the latest stop on his increasingly bizarre visit to Britain.

It is unlikely the ageing general could have expected when he arrived in London in September and took tea with the former prime minister Baroness Thatcher that he would visit the salt flats at the end of the Blackwall Tunnel.

Belmarsh Magistrates and Crown Courts, which opened five years ago, are among the most secure in Britain, and have been the site of the trials and committals of many serious criminals.

Court staff reveal, almost proudly, that one of the Kray clan was dealt with there.

Today security at the court will be extremely tight - police officers are being drafted in and the number of private security guards will be boosted. ("My boss told me I could 'piss off', when I joked that I wanted tomorrow off," one of the guards said yesterday.)

In contrast to today's security, things yesterday were remarkably quiet.

The two security staff seemed rather amused by the media interest, in particular from Chilean journalists who struggled to find the Spanish translation for "in the dock". One of General Pinochet's countrymen said: "This is an historic moment, as we might be the last journalists to ever see him alive."

The courtroom was locked, the one case it was hearing having been dealt with earlier in the day. (An Alfaw Waz, accused - perhaps suitably enough - of conspiracy to murder.)

There is only one court at Belmarsh - a futuristically designed, large, airy room on the first floor. It is clean, pine-clad and has windows close to the ceiling.

Space has been set aside for 38 journalists, of which only four are from Chile.

It is likely that General Pinochet's lawyers will argue that the 83-year- old be allowed to remain seated in his wheelchair in front of the dock during the hearing. If not, the autocratic backside will rest in the dock on a blue, cushioned bench behind a screen of strengthened glass.

The case, expected to last little more than 10 minutes before it is adjourned, will be heard by Graham Parkinson, a recorder and Metropolitan Stipendary Magistrate who likes opera and playing the piano.

Mr Parkinson, 61, was not available for comment yesterday, but a spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said: "Of course Mr Parkinson is aware of the worldwide interest in this case, but he will hear it entirely on its merit.

"There is no way that he will have been briefed or anything like that. The judiciary is completely independent."

Exactly what route General Pinochet will take to Belmarsh from his rented home on the upmarket Wentworth Estate inSurrey is not clear.

But one would advise him to leave in plenty of time. With all the roadworks going on yesterday, the traffic was awful.