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Friday, October 8, 1999 Published at 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK


Cheers and tears in Chile and Spain

Vigil for the disappeared: Five-year-old Martin Cabrera lost five relatives

There has been a mixed reaction in Chile to news that a UK court has opened the way for the extradition of former military ruler Augusto Pinochet to face torture charges in Spain.

Thousands of supporters and opponents of General Pinochet tuned in to television specials from 0530 on the morning to watch coverage of events in London.

[ image: There has been no sign of earlier exuberant support on Chile's streets]
There has been no sign of earlier exuberant support on Chile's streets
Most people had expected the decision to go against former military strongman, and there was a mood of despondency among his supporters even before the ruling was announced.

But there were cheers from his opponents and activists representing relatives of the 1000-or-so "disappeared" of General Pinochet's rule. They had stayed up through the night waiting for the decision.

They plan to hold a celebration march in the centre of Santiago later on Friday.

Madrid celebrations

Relatives of victims of the Pinochet years also gathered in Madrid's central Puerto del Sol where they heard the announcement on transistor radios.

A moment's silence was followed by joyous clapping, hugging and tears of relief.

They feel that a huge obstacle has been overcome and that Gen Pinochet will now eventually be tried in Spain on human rights charges.

The Spanish Government on the other hand is unlikely to share their happiness - they have never commented openly about the case, but it's widely known that they are worried about the affect it will have on their deteriorating relations with Chile.

Dialogue and threats

But there is a widely-held consensus in Chile itself that the case has already helped the nation to face up to dark truths concerning its past.

The pinochet File
Last August saw the start of an unprecedented dialogue between human rights lawyers and members of the armed forces to try to find ways of revealing what happened to those disappeared whose bodies have never been recovered.

Many people say that without Pinochet's arrest this dialogue would never have taken place.

There are others who view the proceedings against Gen Pinochet as a threat to democracy in Chile. They say the episode has increased agitation and polarisation in Chilean society.

Views from Britain

Encouragement for Pinochet supporters has come from the forceful intervention by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who this week called for "Britain's only political prisoner" to be set free.

[ image: Support came from an old ally, Margaret Thatcher]
Support came from an old ally, Margaret Thatcher
Speaking at a fringe meeting at the opposition Conservative Party's annual conference, Mrs Thatcher accused the UK and Spanish Governments of collaborating to put on a Pinochet "show trial".

Her comments have been widely circulated in the Santiago press and subjected to extensive analysis.

But this time round there has been little sign of the impassioned anti-extradition protests which greeted previous developments in the saga.

The most vocal demonstrations, both for and against the general, have now been transferred to the pavements outside the magistrates court in London's Covent Garden where Friday's ruling was announced.

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