Five years on, will Pinochet finally be
brought to justice in his native Chile? By Phil Davison
Almost five years ago, Britain's Home Secretary at the time, Jack
Straw, decided that the former Chilean military dictator Augusto
Pinochet was too unwell to face trial and so freed him from house
arrest in England to return home. He had been detained on an
international warrant issued by a judge in Spain.
Now, Chile's Supreme Court has ruled that Pinochet, though now in his
90th year, is, in fact, fit to face murder and torture charges in his
own country. A representative of the court visited his coastal ranch at
Los Boldos, 70 miles west of Santiago, yesterday to tell him the
decision and that he must remain under house arrest pending trial.
Whether he will appear in court, given his age and possible further
legal delays, remains to be seen. His lawyers say he needs a
wheelchair, is diabetic and that a trial "would kill him." They have
exhausted the appeal process but may yet come up with something.
Whatever the outcome, many Chileans have been celebrating the Supreme
Court decision that the former dictator can be tried, albeit for only
10 specific murders or disappearances, a drop in the ocean of the more
than 3,000 killed in Chile, and a similar number missing, during his
The 10 cases were part of Operation Condor, a plan drawn up in Chile
with five other South American dictatorships in the 1970s, under which
their intelligence agents and hitmen co-operated and crossed each
other's borders to track down, interrogate, torture and often kill
liberal opponents. The idea was that dissidents who fled to other
countries could be watched and also that victims wouldn't recognise
their captors or torturers.
The operation remained secret until 1992, when an investigating judge
in Paraguay stumbled across the so-called Terror Files, giving names
and details of thousands of victims of South American military regimes.
Official US documents, since de-classified, suggest the US
administration of President Gerald Ford and the CIA were well aware of
Condor and, at the very least, allowed US military facilities on the
Panama Canal to be used for its communications.
It was in October 1998, under Mr Straw's orders, that British police
stunned the world by arresting Margaret Thatcher's old friend on a
visit to London. The Home Secretary was acting on a warrant issued by
the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who wanted to try the former
dictator for "crimes against humanity," including the deaths or
disappearances of Spanish citizens in Chile during Condor.
Mr Straw's decision to have Pinochet arrested followed the
de-classification of US documents that showed that Operation Condor had
been launched by Pinochet's intelligence service, Dina, and had been
welcomed by the CIA and a Ford administration concerned about the
spread of Marxist groups in South America.
Pinochet remained under house arrest in England for 17 months until Mr
Straw deemed him unfit for trial in Spain and allowed him to fly home
in March 2000. There, efforts began immediately to lift his immunity as
self-nominated Senator-for-Life, and to bring him to trial, but he
continuously played the ill-health card and insisted he had always been
"Chile's good angel". He also used the reverse of the argument used by
the Nazi officers he much admired - "Only following orders" - by saying
he was unaware of any murder or torture carried out by his officers or
In 2001, he was charged with 75 murders or disappearances during the
weeks after he overthrew the Marxist president Salvador Allende on 11
September, 1973. The victims were shipped away in what became known as
the Caravan of Death and were never seen again. But in 2002, the
Supreme Court ruled he was not fit to stand trial and he remained free.
The fact that the five-member Court ruled the opposite this time round,
on different charges, appears to reflect a growing national feeling
Shortly before last Christmas, he went into hospital, saying he had
suffered a stroke, but prosecution lawyers, as well as the many
Chileans who despise him, believed he was merely trying to avoid trial.
Despite the painful memories of his rule, he had appeared untouchable
in Chile even for many years after democracy took over in 1990. Many
gave him credit for Chile's economic recovery.
But his shock arrest in London emboldened many of his countrymen and
his support dwindled in subsequent years. He was finally indicted on
one charge of murder and nine of kidnapping last year, but his lawyers
argued that he was suffering from mild dementia and was unfit to stand
The Supreme Court, partly influenced by a US television interview in
which he appeared lucid, has rejected that argument, leaving the
investigating judge, Juan Guzman, to set a trial date.
Recent investigations into allegations that Pinochet had evaded tax and
siphoned off up to $15m (£7.5m) in public funds to secret foreign
bank accounts saw public opinion turn against him further. Then, just
before Christmas, came a 1,200-page report by an official commission on
torture during his rule, in which more than 30,000 people said they had
faced electric shock treatment, submersion in water, sexual abuse, had
their fingernails torn, were forced to watch other prisoners tortured
or were made to drink their urine and eat their excrement.
Even Pinochet's eldest daughter, Lucia, said she was shocked at the
"barbarism" documented in the report, though she blamed the torture on
"individuals, not something structural".
Documents uncovered in Chile suggest Pinochet's intelligence chief,
Manuel Contreras, launched Condor on the dictator's 60th birthday, 25
November 1975, at a meeting in Santiago with intelligence chiefs from
the military regimes in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and
Contreras, who has served seven years for two Condor murders and is
back in jail for another, has always said he "would do nothing without
the General's knowledge".
Judge Guzman says that operation Condor was the General's idea and that
he presided over it. The judge is also investigating Contreras and nine
of his Dina agents for a massive disinformation campaign during Condor,
under which the killings of hundreds of Chileans in other South
American countries were blamed on internal struggles within a
fictitious Marxist group in an effort to explain their disappearances
to relatives in Chile.
"We are happy. The world is happy," said Lorena Pizarro, who runs an
association of relatives of torture and murder victims, on hearing the
Supreme Court decision. "Pinochet cannot continue to live in impunity."
But will he live long enough to go to court? And if he does, will he
perhaps call Mrs Thatcher as a character witness?