14 December 2006 Edition

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International - Pinochet dies without facing justice for his crimes

Death of a dictator

For many it was an irony that former Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet’s death, probably caused by heart failure, should take place on International Human Rights Day, 10 December. Pinochet, a man who swore an oath of alliance to Chilean democracy and to President Salvador Allende was responsible for the demise of both. Pinochet’s subsequent reign of terror was marked by the forced disappearance of 3,000 political prisoners, the torture of thousands of political activists and the exile of over 30,000 Chileans.
Chile is still a country deeply divided. While many mourned the passing of the former dictator, others celebrated in the streets. Those celebrations had a bitter edge, as many point out that Pinochet died without paying for his many heinous crimes. Those who brought him to power in 1973 and those who created the fear and terror that kept him there till 1990 still cripple Chilean society today.
The reign of terror for Chileans started on 11 September 1973, when Pinochet and other army officers staged a coup d’etat –  with the support of the US administration – against the democratic government of Salvador Allende, who died defending the Presidential palace La Moneda.

Secret police
Pinochet declared himself Supreme Chair of the Nation of 27 June 1974 and was made President on 17 December in the same year. By then, many had already being killed or disappeared and thousands forced to abandon the country. Just weeks after the coup, army colonel, Manuel Contreras, created a secret police organisation – the Direction of National Intelligence, better known as DINA – that became a symbol of state terror, responsible for the murder and kidnapping of political, social and trade union activists.
By the end of the 1980s, international and internal pressure forced Pinochet to call a referendum on his continuity as head of state and much to his surprise he was defeated. However, by the time he abandoned the Chilean Presidency, he thought he had sealed his future, as he remained as Chief of the Armed Forces and ensured that he would be able to nominate nine senators and future successors in the army.
By March 1998, when he stepped down as Army Chief, he took the seat he had secured in the senate and that would allow him life-long immunity from prosecution and so, impunity for his crimes.
That same year, Pinochet travelled to Britain for a back operation. It was there, on the orders of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, that Pinochet was detained for 503 days as Garzón sought his extradition. However, the then British Foreign Minister, Jack Straw allowed the dictator to go back to Chile due to his alleged bad health. Pinochet’s triumphal march on his arrival at Santiago’s airport made a mockery of this excuse.

However, in Chile, Pinochet found that the international initiative to bring justice to the victims of his regime had found an echo with the country’s judiciary and investigations were initiated into his responsibility for the atrocities perpetrated under his dictatorship. Sadly, most of these were closed, again due to reasons of bad health. However, to his final days, Pinochet was reminded of his victims. At the time of his death he faced charges relating to the torture and murder of political activists and corruption.
Salvador Allende’s daughter, who has come to represent the pain of Pinochet’s victims and those in exile, explained that she was happy at his death but sad that he was never brought to court.
“His death does not close a chapter in the books of truth, justice or accountability. It is painful because he was never sentenced, as we all wanted”, she said.
On the other hand, one of the dictator’s best friends, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has expressed her sadness at Pinochet’s death and sent her commiserations to the family.

In Briefs

About 30 civilians were killed in an attack by gunmen on a convoy carrying medical and relief supplies in the Darfur region of western Sudan on 10 December. The attack appears to be the work of the pro-government Janjaweed militia. About 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur since 2003, when rebels took up arms against the government. Since then, an estimated two million people, mostly black Africans whose villages have been attacked by the Arab Janjaweed, have fled their homes. The Sudanese government has rejected a UN Security Council resolution authorising the deployment of UN troops and police to Darfur.

One man has died and nine others have been injured in a roadside bomb attack beside two buses carrying oil company workers in Algeria. The dead man was said to be Algerian. The nine hurt included three British, an American, a Canadian and a Lebanese. The buses were carrying employees of Brown & Root Condor, a company linked to US construction giant Halliburton. The bombing, the second near the Algerian capital in six weeks, took place in Bouchaoui, west of Algiers.

Voters in the Indonesian province of Aceh are due to elect local leaders in the region’s first direct elections. The elections for the posts of governor and deputy governor are part of a peace deal signed with separatist rebels after 29 years of war left 15,000 dead. Rebels in Aceh gave up a demand for independence after winning autonomy and the right to participate fully in democratic elections.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are taking part in the latest protests to press the government to cede more power to the opposition or step down. Led by Hezbollah, the rally is possibly the largest demonstration Beirut has seen. Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, urged the Prime Minister to accept a national unity government or face further action.
Bangladesh’s interim government has deployed troops in the capital ahead of January’s general elections. Troops also took to streets in key locations around the country to maintain public order, officials said. It comes after days of protests by the opposition, demanding changes they say are necessary for the elections to be free and fair.

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