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Britain: Thatcher Condemns 'Kidnap' Of Pinochet

  • Ben Partridge

A British court is expected to rule tomorrow on whether former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet should be extradited to Spain to stand trial for crimes against humanity -- a question that has generated a great deal of controversy. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was outspoken on the subject again last night, when she called Pinochet's detention a "judicial kidnapping." RFE's London correspondent, Ben Partridge, reports.

London, 7 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has voiced strong support for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, accusing the UK government of behaving contemptibly by arresting him a year ago.

Thatcher spoke last night at a "Free Pinochet" rally held on the margin of the annual Conservative Party conference. Her timing was deliberate, as a London court will rule Friday, October 8, on whether Pinochet should be extradited to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity. The former Chilean leader remains under house arrest outside London.

Thatcher said she feels ashamed and angry that a British government agreed to arrest Pinochet under -- to use her words -- "circumstances which would do credit to a police state."

Thatcher spoke to an audience that included Pinochet's son, Marco Antonio, and a group of Chilean members of parliament who are campaigning for his release. It was the first time she has spoken at a party conference since she was forced from power nine years ago.

"Today I break my self-denying ordinance, and for a very good reason, namely to express my outrage at the callous and unjust treatment of Senator Pinochet. But first I want to extend a personal welcome to our Chilean guests, who have come halfway round the world to be with us. They should understand the deep sense of shame and anger we feel at the way in which Chile, its honor, dignity, sovereignty, and its former ruler have been treated."

Chilean supporters of Pinochet say his detention violates their national sovereignty. They say the torture charges brought against him have reopened old wounds, and are undermining the country's reconciliation process and its return to democracy.

British police arrested Pinochet last year as he was undergoing minor surgery in London. The arrest came at the request of a Spanish judge, who wants him to stand trial in connection with the deaths or disappearance of at least 3,000 people in Chile. The judge claims some Spanish nationals were among the victims of the regime Pinochet put in place in 1973, when the general ousted the democratically elected government of Marxist Salvador Allende. Pinochet denies he was responsible for rights abuses.

Thatcher suggested that the international left is pursuing a vendetta against Pinochet, partly because he was responsible -- in her view -- for "saving" Chile and Latin America from communism.

Thatcher was particularly angry because Prime Minister Tony Blair criticized the stance of her own Conservative -- or Tory -- party in a jibe last week. Blair was speaking at a Labour Party conference.

"Yes, my friends, the Tory party, the party of fox-hunting, Pinochet, and hereditary peers. The uneatable, the unspeakable, and the unelectable."

Thatcher accused Blair and Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw of carrying out the "judicial kidnap" of Pinochet to ensure that he stands trial in Spain where, she said, his chances of securing a fair hearing are minimal. She said Pinochet now seems fated to die in England or Spain while the legal process drags on.

A London magistrate ruled yesterday that the 83-year-old Pinochet will not have to appear in person for tomorrow's extradition decision because he is in poor health. He recently suffered two slight strokes.

Thatcher, who recently visited Pinochet under house arrest, said the former Chilean general proved a staunch ally of Britain's during the 1982 Falklands conflict with Argentina, providing her government with vital radar intelligence on Argentine air attacks.

The Thatcher speech was denounced by anti-Pinochet Chilean groups, who staged a protest outside the Blackpool movie theater where the "Free Pinochet" rally was staged. One activist, Carlos Reyes, asked where was Thatcher's compassion for the thousands who were tortured and murdered under Pinochet.

Critics say Thatcher belongs to the Cold War era, that she is now an embarrassment to her party leadership. That may be true: but the turnout by the party faithful shows she still has the force and charisma to command attention.