The general willing to kill his people to win the battle against communism

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In the end it was probably right that Augusto Pinochet never faced justice meted out by a court of his peers for what happened in Chile between 1973 and 1990.

There was always something jarring about the prospect of a half-comprehending 91-year-old man brought to trial for deeds, however heinous, which he thought were the salvation of his country. Add to that the fact that many of his peers to this day agree with him. The verdict on Pinochet can only be delivered by history, and a case can be made in his defence - a far more credible case than can be made for Idi Amin or the genocidal Nazis to whom he is likened by his foes. For these latter however, there is one consolation. General Pinochet may not have died convicted. But he died in disgrace.

Ultimately there was something pathetic about his final years - the years that remained to a man who was wont to boast when he ruled Chile that "not a leaf moves in this country if I'm not moving it".

The world watched astonished as a once all-powerful autocrat languished under house arrest on an estate in Wentworth, Surrey, after a Spanish judge had issued an arrest warrant against him for crimes against humanity.

After 16 months he was allowed to return home by the British government on grounds of ill-health. But whatever was left of the myth of Augusto Pinochet had been destroyed. No spectacle, surely, is more humiliating than that of a dictator removed from the levers of power and revealed as a mortal, flesh and blood like the rest of us, obliged to seek escape in the due processes of law that once he had so ruthlessly abused.

Thereafter he was merely a shrivelled old man, haunted by ghosts, living out his days in his own country - a country which, albeit by him, had moved far beyond him, to become once again a model of normality in the hemisphere.

In the end the courts couldn't try him for the deaths of the 3,000 people who had died or disappeared under Pinochet's rule, or for his part in Operation Condor, a syndicate of assassination run by half-a-dozen Latin American strongmen of the era. Nor could they lay a glove on him for the murder in 1976 of Orlando Letelier, the former ambassador and regime opponent who was blown up in a car bomb planted by the Chilean secret services in the heart the opulent diplomatic quarter of Washington DC. Nor could they extract even symbolic recompense for the losses suffered by the 200,000 people who were forced into exile to escape persecution or worse.

No, in the end, the Chilean authorities were after him for tax evasion, and for illicit foreign bank accounts in Washington and elsewhere. Famously, that was how Al Capone was brought to justice. And like Capone, Pinochet - the devout Catholic who declared that "I see myself as a good angel" - would, had he lived, probably have been sentenced as a financial criminal.

Meanwhile, not only has history's broader verdict yet to be delivered. The jury could prove to be hung. For the case for the defence must be considered. Individual leaders are the products of their era. Pinochet himself was a creature of the proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union, fought across Central and Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Yes, the turmoil in Chile before the coup of September 1973 was shamefully fomented by the United States. But there is no evidence that Washington directly ordered the coup. Pinochet sincerely believed that as a military leader, his duty was to save his country from a descent into communism and chaos. He was far from the first general in his part of the world to stage a coup, and he probably won't be the last. His problem was that the country in question was Chile; one reason the coup and its aftermath were so bloody was because of the very robustness of Chile's existing democratic traditions.

Ultimately moreover, even Pinochet had to bow to democracy. After 15 years, he was forced to call a referendum. He lost and two years later in 1990 ceded power to a leftwing government run by former exiles. But the subsequent success of Chile's economy is attributed by many to the free market reforms he introduced, guided by monetarist "Chicago School" economists who used Chile as a laboratory for the ideas of Milton Friedman.

Today, some economists talk of a "Chilean variation," a model for countries where economic growth can best be fostered under a largely authoritarian regime. Russia is one example and China, it could be argued, is another. The problem is the trade-off between prosperity and human rights. And the problem is still unresolved. "I love my fatherland above all," the old man said, as he celebrated his 91st birthday on 25 November, knowing the end was near. And not a few, even in the fatherland he brutalised, still love him in return.