Leading article: Death of a dictator

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Thoughts crowd in on the death of a dictator: the fate of the legitimate government he supplanted; the violence of the takeover; the CIA's record of covert intervention; the 3,000 "disappeared"; the banality of torture; and the speciousness of the communist threat that was cited to justify everything else. It is to no one's credit that, while Chile is a democracy, not all these iniquities have been banished elsewhere.

But two thoughts linger. The first is that even the headstrong General Pinochet had, in the end, to accept that democracy was the way of the future. In 1988, he lost the election. He resigned two years later, retaining control of the armed forces. Seven years after that, he retreated to the Senate. It was neither a glorious nor a principled exit, but it was an exit of a kind.

The second is Britain's part in delaying his eventual disgrace. In 1998 he was arrested during a visit to London. The Spanish authorities had requested his extradition to face charges of human rights charges. The relatively new Labour government was full of its ethical foreign policy and for 16 months the general was under house arrest. But after much legal wrangling, he returned to Chile, declared unfit to stand trial.

But Augusto Pinochet would never be so comfortable again as he was before Spain's abortive attempt to secure his extradition. Chile lifted his immunity, precipitating more legal battles - and perhaps Chile should have been left to try its own. Had the International Criminal Court existed when Spain brought its charges, however, might the outcome have been different? Pinochet's crimes were not against Chile alone.