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Pinochet Death Prompts Somber Reflections

Reaction to the death Sunday of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has been decidedly mixed, both in and outside of Chile. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, human rights workers are expressing regret that the onetime coup leader was never held to account for atrocities committed during his 17-year rule, but they believe his case ultimately strengthened the application of human rights law.

Within hours of his death, pro- and anti-Pinochet demonstrators took to the streets of Santiago, and security forces were dispatched to restore order.

To his supporters, General Augusto Pinochet was a national savior who prevented Chile from succumbing to communism.

Other Chileans are expressing conflicting emotions over Pinochet's death: satisfaction that a man they regard as a murderer has perished, yet sadness that a wave of lawsuits brought against him are now moot.

Isabel Allende is the daughter of the late Salvador Allende, the socialist president Pinochet overthrew in 1973 with the covert backing of the United States. She spoke with reporters in Madrid.

"It pains me that none of the accusations against him [Pinochet] could be pursued to the end," she said. "I would have preferred for my country, for its dignity, for the rule of law -- that the trials against him would have gone forward. Obviously this was a despicable person with many questions surrounding him, including the inexplicable fortune he amassed."

General Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, during which time thousands of suspected leftists are believed to have disappeared in the country. Thousands of others fled into exile. At the same time, Chile embarked on a free-market reform initiative and emerged as one of the strongest economies in Latin America.

In 1988, the general lost a vote on whether to remain in power. Chile returned to elected government two years later, but Pinochet remained the head of the country's armed forces as well as a senator-for-life.

In 1998, while in London recovering from back surgery, Pinochet was arrested on an extradition warrant from Spain for alleged torture and murder. The director of the Americas Program at Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, notes that Pinochet was traveling on a diplomatic passport, and describes the general's detention as a landmark event.

"The precedent that was established when he was in detention in London is a turning point for the history of human rights," he said. "It was a monumental precedent that helped going after the perpetrators of gross violations of human rights all over the world by applying international treaties that were considered for many years as 'soft law' - but that could be invoked in many similar cases. And, indeed, that is what is happening now."

After months of detention in Britain, Pinochet was eventually sent home to Chile due to his deteriorating health. But lawsuits continued to hound him, and not just for alleged human rights violations. Allegations also surfaced that he had pocketed millions of dollars during his rule and funneled the money to foreign bank accounts.

In the end, Pinochet was never formally convicted of any crime and never served a day in prison. But the lawyer who initiated Spain's case against Pinochet in the late 1990s, Juan Garces, says Pinochet has made it harder for future dictators to act with impunity.

In a VOA interview, he said, "The Pinochet case shows that international laws originating in Nuremberg in 1946 are still alive and relevant. With these laws and others that have been formulated, a person who comes to power in a country - if he uses his authority to commit crimes, he may terrorize and control society, but he must know that his impunity can be terminated by the application of international law."

Pinochet had some admirers among Western leaders, most notably former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who labeled legal proceedings against the general as a "political vendetta." Pinochet was one of the few Latin American leaders to ally his country with Britain during the 1982 conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

Much that has come to light about Pinochet's rule was uncovered by truth commissions and other investigations in Chile and elsewhere, along with the declassification of U.S. government documents pertaining to Chile in the 1970s.

Pinochet, who was 91 at the time of his death, will be given a military, not a state funeral on Tuesday.