BY KEVIN G. HALL
Herald World Staff
SANTIAGO, Chile -- After more than 16 months of house arrest,
president Augusto Pinochet departed London Thursday on a Chilean air force
plane. Awaiting him was a country deeply divided about how to deal with the
former strongman and his return.
Pinochet, 84, had been held in London since Oct. 16, 1998, on
request from Spain, where a judge wanted to try him for torture and other human
rights violations against Spaniards during his 17 years as Chile's chief executive.
Later, Switzerland, Belgium and France sought to try him in their courts.
Although Pinochet went home a free man, he left behind a landmark
precedent establishing that former heads of state accused of human rights
abuses are not immune from prosecution abroad.
In the end, British Home Secretary Jack Straw decided Thursday
that Pinochet is
too sick to stand trial and let him go home.
``This has been an unprecedented case. Both I and the courts have
navigate in uncharted territory,'' Straw told the House of Commons after ruling that
Pinochet was mentally unfit to be extradited to Spain for trial on torture charges.
Straw also dismissed extradition requests from the three other
contended their citizens were victims of Pinochet's regime -- Belgium, France and
Pinochet, who doctors say suffered brain damage when he experienced
strokes last fall, left Britain on Thursday afternoon and was expected to arrive in
Santiago today after an undisclosed stopover en route.
The former dictator issued no comment as his detention in Britain
came to an
end, but his eldest son, Augusto Marco Antonio, said in the Chilean capital that
his father received the news of his freedom ``very calmly, the way he usually is,
without showing his feelings and emotions.''
Just as Pinochet is about to come home, a broad-based group of
Chileans appears close to agreement on how to put the enduring problems from
the Pinochet dictatorship into Chile's past. Generals participating in a round-table
discussion with prominent representatives of Chile's political and cultural life this
week took a draft to the top military brass.
Under the proposal, the military would acknowledge its past errors,
to fighting external foes but not internal dissidents, and agree to teach human
rights issues in military schools. But it would not deal with thorny political issues,
such as whether Pinochet, a retired general, can be stripped of his status as
senator-for-life -- with its immunity from prosecution.
Pinochet toppled elected Marxist President Salvador Allende in
a bloody military
coup in 1973 and ruled Chile until 1990. He remained the behind-the-scenes
power in Chile until his arrest in London, where he was recovering from back
``The Pinochet case made us reflect on our recent past.,'' President
told Chileans in a televised address Thursday, calling for a frank dialogue. ``I have
confidence that what we have learned collectively during this time will serve us to
look with honesty at the last decades and consolidate a future with peace and a
future with tolerance.''
Protests for and against Pinochet are expected here over the weekend.
of the more than 3,197 victims of political murders that a Chilean commission
determined had occurred during Pinochet's tenure wanted him tried abroad. They
argued that he would never be punished for torture and other alleged abuses by
the system that provided amnesty to the military when he returned the country to
civilian rule in 1990.
The immediate reaction from victims' groups was disappointment,
but they also
claimed victory, saying that the general had been branded an outlaw in the eyes
of the world.
Supporters who run the Pinochet Foundation to promote the general's
conservative political and military ideas planned to rally outside a military hospital
here, where the general was expected to arrive sometime today.
Pinochet's return to Chile comes less than two weeks before Ricardo
Lagos is to
be inaugurated as Chile's next president, on March 11. Lagos, who had been
named ambassador to the Soviet Union by Allende before the Pinochet-led coup,
is the first elected Socialist president since Allende.
Lagos, who made his political name opposing Pinochet in the late
1980s, is a
winner with the timing of the general's return. He clearly did not want to inherit the
Pinochet extradition issue. Already eyed warily by the politically powerful Chilean
military, Lagos is now free to pursue his priorities like refocusing government
spending on social problems and getting Chile back on an economic growth
This report was supplement by Herald wire services.
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald