Crime and Punishment

by Christopher Henning, Sydney Morning Herald

from World Press Review, January 1999


Margaret Thatcher had an old friend to tea at her home in October. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, was in London for a back operation. The two former leaders have been comrades since the days of the Falklands war, when Chile gave the British significant help in their campaign to win the islands back from Argentina.

The two see eye to eye on economics. Chile, after Pinochet took control, became the testing ground for the monetarist prescriptions of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics. Britain under Thatcher followed half a decade later. Anglophile Pinochet believes that Britain is "the ideal place to live." Or at least that's what he used to think, before British police arrested him on October 16.

Following a request from Spain, officers from Scotland Yard's organized crime group arrested Pinochet as he lay in hospital recovering from his surgery.

Two Spanish investigating judges, Baltasar Garzon and Manuel Garcia Castellon, had requested Pinochet's extradition from Britain to face charges in Madrid regarding the murder, torture, or disappearance of 79 Spanish citizens during the years after the coup that brought him to power in 1973. Later, Garzon widened the indictment to include charges of genocide and to increase the number of victims to 94 by including 15 non-Spanish citizens.

The arrest appears to have been the work of the judges. The subsequent turmoil in relations between Chile, Britain, and Spain came out of the blue. Britain's Labor government has not so far interfered with the impartial workings of international justice. Though its forty-something and fifty-something cabinet members may now be Thatcherites, they were lefties when they were young and grew up in an age when Pinochet's coup against the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende was as one analyst put it, the closest thing Britain's '60s generation had to the Spanish civil war. Peter Mandelson, the trade secretary whom no one would dream of accusing of left-wing sympathies, said: "The idea that such a brutal dictator as Pinochet should claim diplomatic immunity, I think, for most people in this country would be pretty gut-wrenching stuff."

Spain's right-wing government is making a public show of non-interference, although legal proceedings have begun there to try to overturn Garzon's judicial investigation.

One of the main supporters of the case against Pinochet is Joan Garces, who was a legal adviser to Allende. While Pinochet's soldiers were rounding up leftists and political opponents, murdering more than 3,000 of them, torturing thousands in the infamous Villa Grimaldi in Santiago, and kidnapping thousands more whose fate has never been ascertained, Garces fled to Spain with tens-of-thousands of others who chose exile rather than life under the dictator.

For years Garces has been building a case against Pinochet. He says that much of the evidence came from Chilean government reports published in 1991 and 1996 on the murders of political opponents committed by the Pinochet regime. Another source was declassified U.S. government documents that detail the Nixon administration's dislike of Allende's government and its efforts to overthrow it. Garces spent time in the U.S. combing through documents for facts on Pinochet's victims, which were cited in the warrant against the general.

Garzon - known in the Spanish press as "super-judge"- has been involved in his country's highest-profile cases. He has prosecuted corrupt government ministers, Basque terrorists, and Colombian drug barons. In his office in Madrid, he has a picture of a colleague who was assassinated by Basque terrorists after an investigation. More than two years ago, Garzon and Garcia Castellon took up the cases of Spanish citizens killed in Chile under Pinochet, after the Spanish government passed a law allowing foreigners to be prosecuted for genocide against Spanish citizens even if the events took place in another country.

In Chile, the arrest has been greeted with outrage among the military and right-wing politicians and also, though perhaps less virulently, in the present government. Chile's ambassador in London has protested to the British. Chile's president Eduardo Frei, has protested to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

The effect of the arrest, says Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, has been to bring Pinochet and his repression back from the wings, where they had been relegated by tacit consent of both left and right, and onto center stage. "There is a consensus in Chile in the last eight years in the transition to democracy whereby Pinochet is forgotten or left apart," Dorfman says. "Both the left and right agree on this, but the victims don't agree, and the great part of the country doesn't agree. This arrest . . . people just are not going to be able to forget him. I think it is an extraordinary, in fact for me a jubilant and glorious, moment of our national history."

Professor Benny Pollack of the University of Liverpool says that although no polls have been taken on Pinochet's support in Chile, he would be popular with the 40 percent of voters who support right-wing parties, as opposed to the 60 percent who voted for the center-left coalition presently in power. Pollack believes the arrest will open up old wounds. "There is a danger of a right-wing coup again. I was listening to the right-wing parliament members. Their message was: Either you release General Pinochet, or else. That is blackmail."

Pinochet's support in Chile is based on the economic transformation his free-market policies worked on the country. But many Chileans are not seeing the benefits. Under Pinochet, 40 percent of the population lived in poverty. Although the figure is now 27 percent, that is still about 4 million people. And with investment down following the Asian crisis and the price of copper-Chile's main export-falling, things are not going to improve for a while.

Human Rights, Justice, Reform