Dominic Lawson: General Pinochet, the courtly gangster

I asked him four times about his responsibility for the torture and killing of political prisoners
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There is a certain sort of person you might expect to meet in the gated estates that border the Wentworth golf club. Bruce Forsyth, for example. Or Jimmy Tarbuck; or Russ Abbott. You would not expect to meet a former South American dictator under house arrest pending extradition for crimes against humanity, including torture.

That, however, was where the advisers of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte had chosen to install their erstwhile commander-in-chief for 16 months while an unprecedented legal battle was fought over the attempt by a Spanish magistrate to try Pinochet outside his own country. It was nine months into his detention - July 13 1999 - when I saw Pinochet; by then he had become so frustrated by his circumstances that he suspended - for one afternoon - his horror of meeting anyone who could be described as a journalist. To my amazement he had agreed to my request for an exclusive interview, in return for the chance - as he saw it - to tell the British people how badly he had been treated by the Blair government.

This most uncharacteristic decision had infuriated the commander-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces, General Ricardo Izurieta, his notional boss, who was closely involved in the delicate diplomatic negotiations between Britain and Chile. On the day of the interview two Chilean officials had flown into London to tell Pinochet face to face his commanding officer ordered him not to see me; but by the time they touched down, Pinochet was already in full flow, fulminating about his "betrayal" by the British, whom he had always seen as his "friends".

Compared with the circumstances in which his own former political opponents had been held while under arrest, General Pinochet's place of detention was positively salubrious; on the other hand, I could see why the old boy had become a whistling kettle of pent-up frustration. All but two bedrooms were occupied by British police officers. Wires were everywhere, some linked to vast searchlights which illuminated the house and garden all night, others to infra-red movement detectors dotted about the lawn. Meanwhile, just in case this 83-year-old diabetic tried to make a run for it two detectives, accompanied by Alsatians, sat in chairs on either side of the garden, combining enthusiastic perusal of a succession of tabloid newspapers with frequent glances in Pinochet's direction.

Pinochet didn't speak a word of English, and among the many ironies of the situation was the fact that my newspaper had hired an interpreter from New Scotland Yard. Initially, even she had some problems in understanding Pinochet. It was not so much his Chilean accent, as the fact that his voice was little more than a hoarse whisper. However, it was still the voice of authority: when he indicated that he wished us to be served with coffee, his Chilean military bodyguard, Captain Torres, leapt to it with a heel-clicking "Immediatemente, mi General!".

I asked the interpreter afterwards how she would describe Pinochet's language, and she replied that it was "courtly". It was certainly striking how often he spoke about "respect", either his for this country, or the lack of it that he had now been shown by the new(ish) Labour Government: " I arrived in this country not as a bandit, or secretly. I was greeted with the honour a respectful person in your country deserves. I should have been warned and given time so that I could leave. That's what a respectful person does."

Pinochet's main rhetorical flourish - and I can imagine how this might have seemed faintly grotesque to families who had suffered persecution under his period of rule - was "I am the only political prisoner in England" ("El unico prisionero politico que hay acqui en Inglaterra soy yo.") It's worth recalling that this took place at around the time that the British Government was freeing all manner of thugs, both Republican and Unionist, in accordance with the Good Friday agreement. Pinochet raged that, while he remained a captive, "Todos los malos bandidos, criminales, violentistas, todos, son indultados y se van un asesino ... libre!" ("Bandits, criminals, violent people, they are all pardoned and off they go ... an assassin ... freed!").

The "assassin" was a reference to the then recently released Patrick McGee, who had tried to blow up Pinochet's great friend, Margaret Thatcher.

Lady Thatcher is just about the only person outside Chile who has uttered words of sympathyat Pinochet's passing. It's not hard to work out why she showed him so much loyalty. During the Falklands War, while even Ronald Reagan initially equivocated in his allegiance, Pinochet was unstinting in providing intelligence and logistical support for the British armed forces. Margaret Thatcher would not have failed to observe that while our fellow democracy, perhaps out of ancient anti-colonial sentiment, was partially sympathetic to the Argentine junta, the neighbouring Chilean military dictatorship was reliably on the side of freedom - at least for the Falklanders. There is no doubt, too, that Pinochet was Thatcherite avant la lettre.

It was not just that he de-nationalised Chile's industries. He also presided over the privatisation of pensions, as a result of which Chile now has the healthiest savings ratio of any developed economy outside the Asian tigers, in stark contrast to the near-bankruptcy of the old European system of state-funded savings. The decision to move to a free-market economy, which involved an abandonment of control from the top, marked Pinochet out as a most unusual dictator. So too did his decision, on two occasions, to hold a referendum on his own leadership. The second one he lost, which is why Chile, after 17 years of military rule, returned to the ranks of democracy.

None of this absolves Pinochet of guilt over the foul abuses of human rights under his regime. Looking back over my transcript of the interview, I see that I asked him four times about his responsibility for the torture and killing of political prisoners. He repeatedly - although with a telling absence of passion - replied that such charges were "gross slander" and that he had "never" committed crimes against humanity: "Nunca."

I wrote at the time that with his courtly manner, hoarse voice and constant harping on "respect" Pinochet forcibly reminded me of Marlon Brando as the ageing Don Corleone. I could not then have known that, in the classic Mafia fashion, Pinochet's final disgrace would come not through any acts of violence but the uncovering of financial irregularities - in his case involving £85m worth of gold ingots in a Hong Kong bank vault. So he was a real gangster, after all.