Tyrant who made the mistake of falling in love with Britain

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The Independent Online
IT SEEMED incredible that any British government could play so fast and loose in London on Friday as to arrest an 82-year-old grandfather, who had arrived in the country he loves most after his own, trusting that he would be treated with the usual British courtesies and given the benefit of our excellent medical facilities.

On his arrival, Amnesty International called for the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, on the basis of the human rights atrocities committed by his regime, and arguing that there was plenty of evidence to link him to the widespread torture with which it was associated. But few people seriously thought that Mr Pinochet, who had only recently ensured that he could never be brought to trial in his own country, was about to get what must have been the shock of his life.

The former dictator, it turned out, has been a regular visitor to this country in recent years. He must have felt especially secure in the belief that the favour he did Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War would always protect him here. When he was at the helm of his country's fortunes he was also a valued customer for British arms manufacturers.

There is certainly no evidence that Pinochet walked into a British trap - that the subtle intention of the New Labour government was to lure him here and then snap him up, thereby giving the credibility of its ethical foreign policy a much needed fillip. Which means that, initially, he was allowed into the country according to the non-principles of realpolitik, in the manner of so many world leaders with blood on their hands

So British people who gave the matter any thought would probably have assumed, like him, that he could indulge his love of Burberry without fear of arrest to help with inquiries into mass murder and torture.

But few world figures have been more perfidious than the former Chilean dictator. The clever socialist politician Salvador Allende was completely taken in by him. Voted by the Chilean electorate into the presidency in 1970, Mr Allende turned to Pinochet as the tide of local treason and US subversion managed by Nixon and Kissinger was on the point of engulfing his government. In August 1973 he appointed Mr Pinochet to command the army and on the very day of Mr Pinochet's putsch, the president was worrying this loyal general had been kidnapped by the dastardly plotters.

In fact, Mr Pinochet had thrown in his lot with the plotters. He and the conspiratorstook over the country on the death of Mr Allende. Withinmonths Mr Pinochet was betraying his co-conspirators and seizing all the reins of power.

The brutality of his regime was terrible to behold. On the night of 11 September the Chilean middle class made merry in the bars and restaurants of the Carrera Hotel, across the square from the Moneda where Mr Allende had taken his own life and which was still burning from the rocket attacks of a few hours previously. In the grand salongentlemen drank champagne from ladies' slippers as they cheered Mr Pinochet's first appearances on television. From behind the green baize doors of the kitchen, the hotel staff peered in terror. If Mr Allende, their now dead president had not got the measure of Augusto Pinochet, they certainly had.

They were right to be in panic. In the subsequent weeks blood flowed in the streets. The generalissimo set up concentration camps for thousands of his opponents in the most isolated parts of the country.

Then there were the torture centres in Santiago - for instance, Villa Grimaldi, Tres Alamos and the quiet Clinica Santa Lucia next to the British Council offices with its copies of The Daily Telegraph. In one such centre Dr Sheila Cassidy, the British surgeon, was tortured for exercising her profession on a man Mr Pinochet did not like. There, Mr Pinochet saw to it that men and women died screaming in agony under an electric current, raped by specially trained dogs or drowned. Women, as Amnesty International attested at the time, were blindfolded and had mice stuffed into their vaginas.

Men and women were repeatedly run over by vehicles. Mothers were forced to watch the torture of their children.

With Chilean society still traumatised by the sort of regime Mr Pinochet introduced, it is no surprise that the country is still in shock. An economic boom has created a new class of nouveaux riches while millions are not much better off than they ever were, some on the brink of starvation.

Last week, it was rumoured that Mr Pinochet had died during his operation in London. For many, the news that he was arrested was, like his death, just another rumour. It took several hours for people to realise that what was extraordinary was, in fact, true. And then the activity began.

Supporters of Mr Pinochet converged on the Pinochet Foundation in uptown Santiago. Many came because they could not believe what they had heard. Others came to plan a fightback. His opponents met to celebrate the day they had hoped for but never expected. For years, the relatives of those who were killed or who disappeared during the dictatorship have been campaigning to have Augusto Pinochet tried and arrested. Now Britain and Spain have achieved something that Chileans alone could never achieve - the arrest of the general, the man his opponents call "The Murderer".