The Guardian 31 August, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

When Pinochet was nabbed

Do you remember when poor old General Augusto Pinochet, former fascist dictator of Chile, was arrested while visiting Britain in 1998? A Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, achieved international fame for his unsuccessful attempt to extradite Pinochet from Britain.

Garzón had issued an arrest warrant for the blood-stained general at the behest of the relatives of some of the thousands killed, tortured or "disappeared" during his regime. The Blair government in Britain rejected the extradition request in 2000, and Pinochet, like virtually all of the Latin American butchers, went free.

Judge Garzón was acting under a law that allows Spanish courts to try foreign nationals involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity.

When Pinochet left Chile to visit Britain, Spanish authorities officially notified London of the warrant and Her Majesty’s Government had no option but to act on it.

Rum show, eh? Arresting people for being beastly to trade unionists and communists! I mean, what was the world coming to?

Being arrested is not normally considered a jolly experience. When Roísín McAliskey, the pregnant daughter of Irish civil rights activist and former MP Bernadette Devlin, was arrested in 1996, without benefit of any evidence against her, she was sent to a men’s prison and placed in a faeces-smeared cell that had been used for a "dirty" protest.

The British authorities alleged she had been involved in a terrorist attack on a British military barracks in Germany, but despite, their best efforts to cook up a case against her, they simply could not come up with any evidence and the charges were ultimately dropped. In the meantime, it took an international campaign to get her moved to a clean cell in a women’s prison!

And she was innocent, unlike Pinochet, the nature of whose brutal and bloody regime was a matter of record.

Pinochet was proud of his role in leading the coup of September 11, 1973 that overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected government (and murdered its President, Salvador Allende). Nevertheless, or more likely because of this, he was housed by the British in a mansion, with plenty of servants at his disposal and visitors at any time he wished.

Even then, right-wing leaders complained about the "hardship" the poor general was having to endure. Long-time admirer and close buddy Margaret Thatcher was one of these.

Maggie, in fact, was a frequent visitor and allegedly a major financial contributor to his legal expenses. The idea that people could be arrested for pursuing extreme right wing polices would not have sat well with a reactionary like Maggie.

Even the Pope got in on the act — on behalf of Pinochet, of course, not his victims. In the eyes of the Vatican, the latter had all been Communists or "red sympathisers" and hence their fate was of no great concern to the Pontiff.

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was a close friend of Pinochet. According to Olivier Schmidt in his new book The Intelligence Files: Today’s Secrets, Tomorrow’s Scandals (Clarity Press, 2005), Sodano was the "architect" of the Vatican’s relationship with Pinochet’s military junta in Chile.

"He [Sodano] served as Papal nuncio in Santiago from 1977 to 1988 and organised the widely-publicised papal visit to Chile in 1987, which was seen as the Vatican’s approval of Pinochet’s brutal military regime, despite the jailing, torture and murder of many local priests."

After the British government had reluctantly "incarcerated" the General, thanks to a Spanish judge with a conscience, democratically-minded people celebrated in London and South America. But even as the people in the streets were calling for Pinochet’s immediate extradition to Spain to stand trial for his crimes, the British government was working to sabotage the whole process.

They were less interested in the voices in the street than they were in the voices of the right wing establishment in industry and politics. And those voices wanted their good friend Pinochet released.

"Following Pinochet’s arrest, the Chilean Under Secretary of State, Mariano Fernandez, had been dispatched to meet Angelo Sodano at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, on November 1. The Pope’s intervention was confirmed by Foreign Office representative, Baroness Symons, in a written reply to the former Tory Chancellor, Lord Lamont", Schmidt writes.

Lord Lamont, in turn, expressed his "confidence" that Pope John Paul II wanted General Pinochet freed and returned home. And why wouldn’t he? After all, Pinochet had merely done in Chile what that other "knight of the church", Franco, had done in Spain.

Lord Lamont incidentally was a true representative of his class. Despite the fact that Pinochet’s bloody coup had been filmed and its horrors widely reported, despite the enormous body of eyewitness testimony about Pinochet’s equally bloody rule post-coup in Chile, Lamont had no problem trying to justify it all.

After praising Pope John Paul II as "a great Christian leader" and a man "who understands the importance of every individual life", Lamont then gets to the crux of his argument: "but he also understands the loss of freedom under Communism as it was threatened in South America.

"Having lived in Poland he understands what a Marxist dictatorship is all about."

And so, once again, anti-communism is deemed sufficient to justify the most brutal and bloody fascist oppression, inhumanity and murder.

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