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Pinochet Returns to Chile

By Anthony Faiola, The Washington Post
Friday 3 March 2000

SANTIAGO, Chile, March 2 –– Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who spent 16 months under house arrest in England fighting extradition to Spain, flew toward home tonight after British authorities ordered his release on humanitarian grounds and whisked him to a swift departure aboard a waiting Chilean air force plane.

The carefully orchestrated release, dubbed Operation Return here in Chile, brought an abrupt end to a controversial human rights crusade that has created new precedent in international law and left what activists and officials alike described as a lasting mark bound to strike new fear into the hearts of current and former abusive rulers around the world.

The 84-year-old Pinochet, South America's most notorious ex-strongman, was arrested on Oct. 16, 1998, while recovering from back surgery in London. He was taken into custody on an extradition request from a Spanish judge who wanted to try him for atrocities committed during his 17-year rule, from 1973 to 1990. Authorities in Belgium, Switzerland and France quickly filed similar requests.

Pinochet's lawyers twice appealed to the House of Lords for the old dictator's release but each time the legal walls seemed to close in further. Then late last year, the Chilean government and Pinochet's attorneys changed tactics, seeking a humanitarian release by asking Britain to consider the findings of Pinochet's private medical exams.

Home Secretary Jack Straw agreed, and in January he said that the exam results made him of a mind to release Pinochet. Despite challenges to the findings, Straw ultimately dismissed Spanish, French, Swiss and Belgian authorities' requests for more thorough tests.

This morning's decision--and Pinochet's rapid release--seemed aimed at ending what had become an uncomfortable international legal struggle. At noon British time, after being driven from the rented mansion outside London where he had been held to an air base in eastern England, Pinochet took off aboard the Eagle, a medically equipped Boeing 707 operated by the Chilean air force. The departure came just two hours after Straw, Britain's chief legal officer, said Pinochet should be set free because he is mentally unfit to stand trial abroad.

A Spanish human rights activist sought an injunction in London to block Pinochet's flight, but by the time the case could be heard, the general was soaring high above the Atlantic. "Nothing would be served by continuing the current extradition process in England," Straw said in a statement, referring to exams by British doctors that concluded that Pinochet suffers from brain damage and could not fully participate in a trial.

Straw recognized his decision means Pinochet is unlikely ever to face trial, but said the case "has established, beyond question, the principle that those who commit human rights abuses in one country cannot assume that they are safe elsewhere."

"That will be the lasting legacy of this case," he declared.

Already, the case has had international repercussions. Current and former officials from Yugoslavia, Africa and South America reportedly have rethought travel plans, fearing "the Pinochet effect." But Straw's decision nevertheless brought immediate rancor from human rights groups and authorities in several countries who said Straw too easily dismissed comments by doctors in Europe that Pinochet's medical exams were inconclusive and that Straw had not allowed enough time for appeals.

"This is a decision taken over the blood of the victims," said Sophie Thonon, a lawyer representing two French nationals who were among more than 3,000 people reported killed or "disappeared" in a campaign against leftist activists and their sympathizers during Pinochet's rule.

The Clinton administration said the United States will respect Britain's decision and urged other governments to do the same. "This is a case that was litigated in Britain, in their court system," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.

In an itinerary designed to prevent Pinochet's arrest in any other country, Chilean officials said the flight carrying him home included a refueling stop at Ascension Island, a British outpost in the South Atlantic, then a stop in the northern Chilean city of Iquique before a landing in Santiago scheduled for Friday morning at 8:15 a.m. (6:15 a.m. EST)

Almost instantly, Chile became the new battleground over Pinochet. Belgium has said it will file a new extradition request, and international human rights advocates have put heavy pressure on the Chilean government to carry through on its promise to put Pinochet on trial at home.

While such a trial is still a possibility, sources close to the case against Pinochet here expressed new skepticism. Mental illness is the only reason for avoiding a trial in Chile, they noted, and Straw cited doctors' findings that Pinochet was partially incapacitated.

"It doesn't look good," said one source close to the case. "If Pinochet is in the mental condition that doctors in London have said, then it seems unlikely he will be able to face trial here."

Nevertheless, human rights lawyers in Santiago acted quickly. Two hours after Pinochet's plane took off, they presented a petition to remove the immunity granted him as a senator for life, a position he arranged for himself before stepping down 10 years ago.

Judge Juan Guzman, who under Chilean law acts as both Pinochet's judge and prosecutor, said he will immediately forward the petition to an appeals court for a decision. He said he will request a battery of "very complete medical tests by several leading experts" next week "to determine the actual state of [Pinochet's] health."

Trial or not, Pinochet, once so feared that Chileans would not even mention his name in public, is returning largely without the power and standing he once had. His disgrace abroad has emboldened the Chilean justice system, which has indicted more than a dozen of his former lieutenants. And his opponents and supporters said it is unlikely he will return to the Senate or play any serious role in public life.

"He has lost everything," Jacqueline Pinochet, his daughter, told local reporters this morning. "I think he really isn't very interested in getting involved in politics when he gets back."

Pinochet's plane was expected to land at the Grupo 10 de Pudahuel military air strip near Santiago's international airport. Traveling with Pinochet were his wife, grandson, attorney, personal doctor and several specialists, among others. After a quick arrival ceremony, Pinochet will likely be transferred by helicopter to a military hospital in a wealthy Santiago neighborhood, where his supporters have lined the streets with tiny Chilean flags.

After he leaves the hospital, Pinochet is expected to retire to the seclusion of a military estate outside Santiago.

His welcome home--which once might have had the pomp of a state event--now seems likely to include a few dozen graying generals along with friends, family and diehard supporters who will rally for him at the airport, and later in front of the hospital where a floor has been cleared for his arrival.

Chilean President Eduardo Frei has said he will sit this one out. So will Ricardo Lagos, the president-elect, who takes office on March 11. Pinochet probably would not want him there anyway. Lagos, a leading dissident during Pinochet's dictatorship, is the first Socialist to be elected president since Salvador Allende, overthrown by Pinochet's coup in 1973.

Pinochet's opponents here, especially the relatives of his victims, found satisfaction in the fact that, at least, Pinochet served 16 months under house arrest and was coming home in disgrace.

"Chile is now a country aware of its history, something it had tried to confiscate and forget before Pinochet's arrest," said Mireya Garcia, secretary general of Chile's Families of the Disappeared. Her 19-year-old brother disappeared during Pinochet's regime in 1977. "We have a more just nation now that is no longer willing to tolerate total impunity."

Many of Pinochet's former supporters have cooled on the general as his name was increasingly sullied on the international stage. But there is at least one place here where Pinochet still rules: at the well-appointed Pinochet Foundation that has been the seat of his most avid supporters, known as pinochetistas. This morning at the foundation, a gaggle of pinochetistas erupted in cheers as they heard of the return of their tata, or grandfather.

Correspondent T. R. Reid in London contributed to this report.

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