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The Independent, 6.1.05

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 1973-1990 rule.

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 intelligence agents.

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 against him.

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 trial.

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 Bolivia.

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?

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