The Pinochet Ruling: Protesters' joyous as `justice is done'

London Reaction
Click to follow
IN THE public gallery of the House of Lords, Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean playwright, punched the air and shouted "justicia!". Outside the building, the ruling was greeted with euphoria by anti-Pinochet demonstrators huddled around their transistor radios.

Five months after they first mounted a bedraggled picket outside Parliament, the protesters finally had the outcome they wanted.

When the news came through at about 2.20pm, they erupted into a blur of leaping, singing bodies. Champagne was sprayed over the crowd. For this group of refugees, former prisoners and relatives of "disappeared" Chileans, the result was simple: Pinochet was on his way to Spain.

But the sting in the tail of the decision - the ruling that General Augusto Pinochet is not answerable for charges of human rights abuses before 1988 - enabled his supporters to claim victory too.

Baroness Thatcher, one of the general's most loyal allies, said it would be "quite wrong" to keep him in Britain. "The judgment puts the matter back into the hands of the Home Secretary," she said. "He should now bring to an end this damaging episode and allow Senator Pinochet to return to Chile."

Lord Lamont of Lerwick, another vociferous supporter, said: "The whole thing is a farce. It should never have got this far."

Maria Anjelica Christie, a right-wing Chilean senator and close friend of the former dictator, said: "We hope very strongly that this will bring an end to what has brought so much grief and suffering to our country." Senator Christie, who saw General Pinochet yesterday, said she thought he would be "happy" with the verdict. "He is a very strong man and in good health," she said. "He was prepared for this. He was a soldier. This will make him feel more at peace."

From time to time, over the months, there have been Pinochet supporters too outside Parliament, most of them well-heeled, middle-aged women wearing fur coats and brandishing glossy leaflets. Yesterday they were thin on the ground. The day belonged to the likes of Roberto Vasquez, a Chilean exile jailed by the military regime at the age of 17, when he was a student leader.

When the decision of the law lords came through, he was hugged and clasped by friends and fellow refugees. "I have spent 25 years waiting for this," he said.

Vladimir de la Vega, a musician who was tortured in a Chilean prison in the Seventies, said: "At last it seems as though justice will be done."

Their sentiments were echoed by Amnesty International, which hailed the ruling as a milestone for international human rights law, while expressing regret about the post-1988 ruling. "The message is loud and clear," Amnesty said in a statement. "Head-of-state immunity does not grant the freedom to commit crimes of humanity and acts of torture."

Helen Bamber, director of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, said: "This finding means that no official, however senior, can act with impunity."

The jubilant scenes in central London were replicated outside the secluded mansion in Wentworth, Surrey, where General Pinochet has been living under police guard.

Protesters - who had pinned photographs of people who disappeared under the military regime to police barriers - banged drums, blew whistles and burst into tears when the news was relayed over loudspeakers. National flags fluttered in the wind.

Political reaction was swift and predictable. Ann Clwyd, chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, said: "This is a very welcome day for the relatives of those who have suffered and who have campaigned for truth and justice."

William Hague, the Conservative leader, said it was "a sad day for democracy". In a statement, he said: "Chile is now a democratic country and as such has the right to try General Pinochet for these alleged crimes in a Chilean court."

The general's lawyer, Miguel Alex Schweitzer, was lukewarm on the ruling: "Compared to what we had before, this is good," he said.

But for the crowd outside Parliament, it was better than good. They had become a familiar sight, chanting their favourite slogan, "Pinochet, Dictador, Espana Por Favor".

Yesterday they cheered as Mr Dorfman emerged from inside the building and addressed them in excitable Spanish, telling them: "This is a gift from the dead of Chile to humanity. It is a great victory."