March 26, 1999

Confusion Marks Initial Reaction In Chile To Ruling On Pinochet

By Eduardo Gallardo

SANTIAGO, Chile - The Chilean president praised a British court that denied immunity to Gen. Augusto Pinochet but threw out most charges against him, saying the former dictator could still stand trial in his homeland.

Spain, whose citizens are among the thousands of suspected dissidents killed under Pinochet's 13-year dictatorship, is seeking the former Chilean dictator's extradition from Britain on human rights violations.

``I want to express my satisfaction, because the arguments put forth by our attorneys were accepted by the House of Lords,'' President Eduardo Frei said.

He said his government has always depended on state immunity, ``which is not the same as impunity.''

``Any former head of state could be tried in our country,'' Frei said. ``There are a growing number of lawsuits being processed by a Chilean judge against Pinochet.''

The ruling by the Lords left Pinochet facing only three charges of torture, conspiracy to torture and murder conspiracy allegedly committed during his 1973-1990 regime.

In a 6-1 decision, the House of Lords dismissed the remaining 29 counts in a Spanish warrant, saying he could not be held accountable for any acts of torture committed before 1988, when Britain signed a law making the practice an international crime.

In Chile, many appeared satisfied with the ruling, which sparked only minor street clashes. Some 25 demonstrators were briefly detained.

Foes of Pinochet reacted with cheers and tears to the ruling while his supporters uncorked champagne bottles.

Pinochet himself was reportedly pleased with the Lords' decision.

``He is happy, because this ruling makes justice,'' said retired Gen. Luis Cortes, a close Pinochet associate who spoke with the general by phone.

``He now has no doubts whatsoever that he will return home.''

The ruling caused initial confusion in Chile, where many people paused to watch the court decision on television.

At the headquarters of an association of relatives of dissidents who disappeared during Pinochet's regime, a mostly female audience exchanged hugs and kisses, others cried, when it became clear Pinochet was to remain in London.

While many of the members were disappointed by the court's decision to clear Pinochet of facing prosecution of any crimes committed before 1988, they said there was still reason to celebrate.

``The important thing is that it has been confirmed that nobody, no matter how important he is, has the right to kill people just because they have different political thinking,'' said Sola Sierra, president of the organization.

``This has not ended, this goes on,'' she added.

Across town at the Pinochet Foundation, in the upscale Las Condes district, the formal general's supporters celebrated the news that many of the charges against Pinochet had been dropped.

The Foundation members, waiving Chilean flags and chanting ``Pinochet, Pinochet,'' applauded the ruling, although it wasn't clear that their leader was not immediately returning to Chile.

Foundation president Hernan Briones later said in a communique he saw no reason for Pinochet to remain in London, citing the reduction in the number of charges.

Briones said the Chilean government should press British Home Secretary Jack Straw to reconsider Spain's extradition request.

In spite of a government ban on public demonstrations, several hundred people from both sides took to the streets in mostly peaceful marches under the gaze of police.

Only minor clashes erupted when police dispersed demonstrators blocking traffic at a downtown avenue.

A Chilean government spokesman Jorge Arrate said a panel of legal experts had begun to analyze the 200-page ruling.

The army, which Pinochet commanded until last year, said it would not immediately comment on the ruling.

But spokesman Col. Alfredo Ewing that ``the return of Gen. Pinochet to Chile continues to be an official goal of our institution.''

Legislators were mixed on the outcome.

Herman Chadwick, a pro-Pinochet congressman, criticized the ruling, saying it did not fully recognize Chile's sovereignty.

Sergio Bitar, a socialist senator who was jailed and exiled under Pinochet, said it was time for Chile to ``assume the task of doing justice'' in the rights violations during Pinochet's regime.

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