Chile Split Over Arrest of Pinochet
By Anthony Faiola
Here in Santiago, leftists celebrated the prospect that Pinochet, 82, may be interrogated or eventually put on trial in Spain for genocide, torture and other crimes -- including the killings of several Spanish citizens. Spain requested his extradition by British authorities on behalf of two Spanish judges investigating crimes committed by dictators in Chile and Argentina during the 1970s and 1980s.
"We are finally on the road to justice!" exclaimed Melaya Garcia, 42, a former Socialist student leader who was arrested and put into a prison camp after Pinochet's bloody coup in 1973. Her brother, a leftist dissident, was later killed by Pinochet's forces.
Rightists, meanwhile, voiced dismay and fury over what they called the kidnapping of their national patriarch, who is recovering from back surgery in a London hospital. Pinochet's allies claim the former president vanquished a communist threat and steered this nation to financial and political stability.
"I cannot envision a scenario where the general is jailed -- I refuse to even accept such a concept," said retired Gen. Rafael Villarroel, Pinochet's former second in command. "This will not be allowed. We must do everything possible to stop this stupidity, this insult, before it goes too far."
Pinochet, who relinquished the presidency in 1990 to a democratically elected executive branch, stepped down as commander in chief of the Chilean military in March and immediately became a senator for life.
Stunned by the arrest, Chilean officials scrambled today to free the retired general by sending a phalanx of attorneys -- including Santiago Benadava, a respected negotiator who has worked on sensitive border conflicts between Chile and Argentina -- to London to state their case that Pinochet was arrested illegally. Chilean authorities said Pinochet, whose surgery took place Oct. 9, was traveling with a diplomatic passport and therefore should have legal immunity. Behind the scenes, Chilean officials and his rightist supporters are lobbying members of the British Parliament, using the fact that Chile offered its assistance in Britain's war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands as part of the pitch. The British, however, said today that since Pinochet was not on an official visit, such immunity does not apply.
The issue of diplomatic immunity is at the crux of whether Pinochet may be extradited to Spain. "There is no doubt that he is legally under the protection of international law," said a source in the Chilean Army who asked not to be named. "For years, Pinochet has been traveling under a diplomatic passport to avoid this problem. It was done specifically to avoid this kind of thing. The legal implications have been researched very well."
But that view was by no means universal in Chile. Sen. Sergio Bitar, a survivor of one of Pinochet's prison camps and now the powerful president of a center-left party in the Chilean Senate, said that Pinochet "should cooperate and provide information" to the Spanish judges. Bitar disputed President Eduardo Frei's claims that Pinochet enjoyed diplomatic immunity and said that the issue should be reviewed by lawmakers in Chile.
"Crimes against humanity need to be dealt with, and those cases may be ones in which diplomatic immunity does not apply," he said.
The arrest has caused a firestorm among ordinary Chileans, igniting passions on both the left and right and reopening the debate on the violent years of Pinochet's dictatorship. Tonight, police repulsed a demonstration by about 1,000 angry right-wing Pinochet supporters in front of the Spanish and British embassies in Santiago. On Saturday night, several hundred cars drove past the Spanish Embassy, protesting the arrest by repeatedly honking their horns. Meanwhile, survivors and relatives of victims of the Pinochet years planned a demonstration in support of the arrest Monday afternoon.
The contrast of opinions underscores the passions that Pinochet still stirs in Chile. "We were repressed, it's true, but in the end, I think we can all see that what Pinochet did was right," said Juan Oehninger, 35, who owns a flower export business. "He did so much for this country; he brought us back from chaos and turned us into an orderly, prosperous nation."
Pinochet has long claimed that he had no direct knowledge of the crimes committed against political opponents of the government during his rule but has also shown arrogance when dealing with the issues. Once, when told that several bodies were found piled on top of each other in a mass grave, he quipped to a journalist: "What economy." Several people said in interviews that it's high time Pinochet, often cagey when asked about his dictatorship, responded seriously to the allegations, and stated under oath exactly what he knows. "He deserves to be judged, and it's about time that he was," said Juan Toro, 18, a Santiago student.
This process will by no means be easy for Chile, in particular the armed forces, which are still very strong but are frustrated and nervous about their inability to help their patriarch.
Villarroel, one of the most powerful military figures in Chile, said that if Pinochet is not released, the military would push for breaking diplomatic ties with Spain and England. He added: "We cannot fight the Spanish Army, we know that."
So who will pay? Villarroel smiled and said, "I can say that it may be real trouble for the government of President Frei."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company