Comment: Put my torturer on trial

Sheila Cassidy, a victim of Pinochet's police, argues that it is never too late to seek justice
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SOME YEARS AGO an elderly nun said to me: "Is it true that you were a martyr, dear?" I gulped and tried to think of a suitable reply. Before I could do so, however, she said eagerly: "What was it like?" In hindsight I expect she was asking me if I felt close to God while I was being tortured; at the time, however, it felt unbearably intrusive and I said coldly that "it was singularly nasty".

For those who may not know the story so far, I am a doctor who went to Chile in 1971 to seek her fortune in a land flowing with red wine, swimming pools and poorly paid housemaids. Absurdly apolitical, I spoke no Spanish and never read newspapers anyway, so I certainly did not go in search of a Marxist paradise. As things turned out, I worked with a number of President Allende's personal friends in the cardiology unit of the San Francisco Borja Hospital, but we talked about patients, not about politics. And I only understood about a third of what they said.

I had been in Chile for less than two years when the generals overthrew Allende's democratically elected socialist government and Chile was transformed overnight into a military dictatorship. General Pinochet emerged as the leader. He was feared and hated among the poorer people, though the wealthier classes hailed him as their hero.

In order to understand the pro- and anti-Pinochet factions, you need to understand the fear of Communism that possessed the Chilean upper middle class during the immediate pre-coup years. To the right wing, Allende was a Communist and would surely requisition their houses and fill them full of peasants. These people had been raised to think of themselves as an elite, and many were charming, cultured people. It's easy to be charming, of course, when you live in a lovely house and have several maids, a cook, chauffeur, gardener and so on. It's easy to be cultured when you go to an expensive school and learn English and travel abroad. These graces come less easily to the poor, sleeping three to a bed, with no running water, no lavatory and an alcoholic father.

The trouble about raising the standard of living of the poor, giving them houses, electricity and running water and shoes, is that the money must come from somewhere, which means taxing the rich. And, of course, no one likes being taxed, not even I. So it is hardly surprising that the rich and the middle class get scared and feel that there are Reds under the beds. Fear, of course, makes people aggressive and aggression can spiral into civil war.

I was in Santiago at the time of the coup in 1973. And, like the rest of its citizens, I submitted to the 8pm daily curfew and heard the shots in the night, and the drone of the lightless helicopter prowling round the city's airspace. I too listened to the numerous stories of torture and shootings in the Stadium, and to the black-humoured jokes with which the Chileans kept up their spirits. "Pinochet went to the cinema disguised as an old woman," ran one of them. "When his face appeared on the screen, all the people stood up and clapped. Pinochet was mesmerised with delight at the sight of his own face on the screen, until he received a sharp dig in the ribs from the man standing next to him: 'Clap, you silly cow,' he said, 'or they'll shoot you!'"

By 1975 I spoke reasonable Spanish and had a job in the Posta No 3 - an emergency hospital in the red light district of Santiago. I had many friends among the foreign missionaries and some of the Chilean clergy. One day, Fernando Salas, a Chilean Jesuit, asked if I would treat a wounded revolutionary with a bullet in his leg. I did, the news got out, and I was arrested by the Dina, Chile's secret police. The rest, as they say, is history.

I was taken to one of the main torture centres, the Villa Grimaldi, and led blindfold to a small room which contained three or four men, who I assumed were members of the Dina. I was immediately told to remove my clothes. I declined, so one of my captors started to rip them off. I was tied naked to a metal bunk and tortured with electric shocks.

Initially, feeling I must defend my friends, I made up a cock and bull story about being asked to treat Gutierrez (the revolutionary) by a doctor who lived in a white house with black gates. To my amazement, they believed me and took me out to look for the house. When they discovered I was lying to them they were much nastier. They put the electrodes in my vagina and the pain was much worse. I was interrogated off and on throughout the night, and, at dawn, I gave in and told them the names of the priest who had asked me to treat Gutierez.

After three days I was transferred to another prison where I was held in solitary confinement for three weeks. After that I was moved to Tres Alamos Detention Centre where I was held for a further five weeks, with 100 other women, until I was expelled from the country on New Year's Eve, 1975.

All this is many years ago - 23, to be precise. Some of these years have been very hard, some of them exciting. I would not have missed any of them. The hardest period was the 1980s when I had intermittent severe depression and anxiety and I often could not sleep. I was never diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder. I never thought I might have it, and I put on such a cheerful facade that few knew of my dark and tear- filled nights or the fact that I was continually exhausted and afraid of losing my job. In 1992, a psychiatrist decided to put me on anti-depressants and I have not been depressed or anxious since. The best, though, is that I sleep every night, long and deeply. I thank God and the drugs for that.

So, what now? What should be done with General Pinochet? Chile, of course, is polarised: those who feel he rescued their country from the jaws of Marxism are outraged. "How dare they arrest him?" they demand. "He has diplomatic immunity." What they fail to say is that Pinochet arranged that he should be named senator for life, so that he would always be above prosecution. The present democratic government upholds this: its main aim is to steer Chile through its transition from dictatorship to democracy, and reckons that the lack of retribution for Pinochet is a small price to pay for national stability.

But the ordinary Jose Bloggs of Chile - who lost his daughter, his friends and his sister-in-law to the Dina - feels quite differently, feels that Pinochet should be brought to trial. I am inclined to agree with him. Pinochet is a symbol of all that was evil and degrading of the years of the dictatorship and, to my mind at least, the pussyfooting of those in Britain who support him is incomprehensible. "This man authorised my daughter and her unborn child to be tortured, raped and killed," says Jose. "How can you think he should not stand trial?"

But you know, and I know, that things are not that simple. There is talk of double standards. If we did not complain when the murderous Ceausescu met the Queen at Buckingham Palace, why should we kick up a stink about Pinochet? If we try the former Chilean dictator must we try every other dictator who sets foot in the UK? Well, perhaps we should.

Another argument - one wielded by the so-called "realists" - is that we should do what is in the national interest. But does the fact that Pinochet assisted the UK during the Falklands War mean that we should turn a blind eye to his record of human rights crimes? I believe not. The fact is that the die has been cast. Pinochet is under arrest and charges are being levelled at him by Spain, and also by UK lawyers on behalf of those residents of the UK who have been injured. Should the police release him because the Government fears the mockery of the press if it does not arrest the next dictator who takes tea with Lady Thatcher?

I believe we should live for the moment and see where it leads us. If America is embarrassed because it emerges that it propped up the Pinochet government, so what? It has been embarrassed before. What matters is that justice should be done, in the full glare of publicity. I would not wish torture or other ill treatment on the general; just that he be treated as the ordinary felon that he is. If, for once, this country acted on behalf of justice without looking over its shoulder and counting the cost, would we not all be proud to be British?

Dr Cassidy is now a specialist in psychosocial oncology in a Plymouth hospital.