The finding that Gen. Augusto Pinochet is unfit to stand trial abroad and the prospect that he could return home soon sent waves of shock, joy and disgust over Chile this evening.
The former dictator's right-wing supporters rejoiced in what might be the end of an ordeal they consider a bitter humiliation for their patriarch, while Pinochet's enemies smarted from what they viewed as the prospect of justice lost.
Although it was still not certain that the decision in London had paved the way for Pinochet's quick release, his close relatives in Chile took it as the best sign yet. His daughter, Jacqueline Pinochet, was close to tears as she told reporters, "It was a surprise for everyone. We didn't think it would happen so fast."
"He's in a very precarious state of health," she added. "When he comes back, he's going to military hospital. He's not in any condition to go to his house. I wish everyone would leave him alone. He is 84 and he has already suffered so much."
But the door opened by British doctors was a bitter pill for relatives of the more than 3,000 people who were killed or disappeared during Pinochet's dictatorship, from 1973 to 1990.
"I think it is beyond irony that a murderer such as Pinochet may be released for humanitarian reasons," said Juan Pablo Letelier, a congressman and son of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador assassinated in Washington by Pinochet's secret police in 1976.
The immediate consensus seemed to be that Pinochet, if he returns to Chile as expected, will not return to public life immediately, especially since the reason for his release is his perceived frailty. But his supporters held out hope that he will eventually assume his spot in the Senate, in which he holds a lifetime seat.
"He has a constitutional right to do so," retired Gen. Rafael Villaroel told reporters in Santiago.
The most important question is whether Pinochet will face a trial in Chile. The center-left Concertacion coalition, which has controlled the presidency in the 10 years since Pinochet stepped down, has used that possibility as a major argument in its efforts to win his release in London. But Letelier said it is likely Pinochet's family and lawyers will argue he is too ill to stand trial in Chile.
Human rights attorneys said they will move immediately to start proceedings against him here. "As soon as he is on Chilean soil, I will file a motion to have him tried," said Hugo Gutierrez, an attorney representing more than a dozen of the 51 civil cases pending against Pinochet here.
Another major issue is the effect the prospect of Pinochet's release may have on Chile's presidential elections. Ricardo Lagos, a dissident during Pinochet's rule, faces a former Pinochet supporter, Joaquin Lavin, in a runoff Sunday.
Experts argued that the decision in London may mean a slight edge for Lagos, who is a Socialist running as the candidate for the Concertacion. Many conservative members of the coalition have defected with the intention of voting for Lavin, and Concertacion's role in winning Pinochet's freedom may bring some back into the fold.