Anger at Czech arms for Pinochet

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The Independent Online
AMIDST continuing expressions of disgust and distaste, General Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former dictator and current army chief, yesterday began controversial talks with weapons dealers in the Czech Republic.

The talks, set to continue today at an exhibition of military hardware in the Czech town of Brno, will almost certainly result in the placing of a substantial order for Czech arms and equipment.

While that in itself does not contravene international laws - Chile now counts as a democracy - the fact that the country will be doing business with Gen Pinochet, a man under whose dictatorship countless Chileans were killed, tortured or 'disappeared', has provoked outrage. It has also been an uncomfortable reminder of the shady arms deals of the then Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, including the sale of tons of the explosive Semtex to Libya.

'There is no justification at all for dealings with this man,' said Jan Urban, a leading dissident in the 1989 'Velvet Revolution' and one of many intellectuals who have condemned the visit. 'It is one thing to be involved in the arms trade. It is quite another to sell to Pinochet.'

The government, clearly embarrassed by the visit, has stressed that it is completely unofficial. Gen Pinochet was invited by the recently privatised Omnipol arms trading company, spokesmen insist. Vaclav Klaus, the Prime Minister, has denied there is any link to his own visit to Chile earlier this year aimed at improving trade links between the two countries.

To many commentators in Prague, Gen Pinochet's visit is seen as a clumsy own goal. 'If somebody else had headed the Chilean delegation, nobody would have batted an eyelid,' said one Western observer. 'As it is, questions have inevitably been raised.'

Few, however, expect that it will seriously undermine the government's drive to revive the country's once thriving arms industry. At its peak in the 1980s, the Czechoslovak arms industry was said to be the seventh strongest in the world, generating export sales worth pounds 1bn between 1983 and 1987.

In the early euphoria of the anti- Communist revolution, President Vaclav Havel condemned the previous regime's arms sales to countries such as Libya and declared his intention to wind down the arms industry. That policy has long been buried. Like its former partner, Slovakia, the Czech Republic is keen to re-establish itself as a serious player in the arms market. To avoid the mistakes of the past, both countries have introduced new regulations outlawing arms sales to terrorist or internationally blacklisted countries.