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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 December 2006, 14:54 GMT
Profile: Augusto Pinochet
Augusto Pinochet
Pinochet has polarised opinion all over the world

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was born the son of a customs official in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso on 25 November 1915.

It was apparently his mother who pushed him into a military career, and his wife Lucia, the daughter of a prominent politician, who encouraged his ambitions.

The young Pinochet rose through the officer corps in an army based on Prussian traditions of discipline and loyalty to the constitution.

But as early as the 1950s he was involved in political struggles, as he headed the clampdown on the Chilean Communist party.

Paradoxically though, it was for his apparent lack of political ambition that he advanced to the rank of general under the left-wing Popular Unity government led by Salvador Allende in the early 1970s.

In June 1973 he was made commander-in-chief, again because President Allende thought he could be trusted.

Only a few months later, in September 1973, President Allende discovered how wrong he had been. He lost his life in the coup led by Gen Pinochet, who headed a military junta representing all branches of Chile's armed forces.

But very quickly it was Gen Pinochet who came to represent the military regime.

It was he who ordered many of the purges that saw more than 3,000 supporters of the Allende regime killed, thousands more tortured, and many thousands more again forced into exile.

He closed down the Chilean Parliament, banned all political and trade union activity, and in 1974 appointed himself president.

Voted out

Gen Pinochet has always defended his actions as those of a patriot who rescued his country from chaos and the threat of communism.

In the 1970s, many Chileans appeared to support this point of view, particularly as the economy recovered and stability returned.

Augusto Pinochet (left) and Salvador Allende
Chileans are still divided over whether the coup was justified
But there was always opposition to his rule, with protests and even a failed assassination attempt in 1986.

It seems that the general underestimated the extent of this discontent. Under the constitution brought in by his military government, a plebiscite on his continued rule was held in 1988.

Much to his surprise and dismay, he lost, paving the way for a return to civilian government.

In 1990, he reluctantly stepped down as president, but remained commander-in-chief of the army.

In that position, he frequently acted to quash the threat of prosecutions against members of the security forces suspected of human rights abuses during the 17-year military regime, as well as to block any radical political initiatives.

In 1998, Gen Pinochet finally relinquished his post as commander-in-chief.

The very next day, he took up a parliamentary seat as a senator-for-life, another position he had created for himself.

He seemed untouchable until his arrest and subsequent detention in London in October that same year, after an extradition request from Spain.

New climate

After more than a year in custody, the general was allowed to return to Chile in March 2000, after UK Home Secretary Jack Straw said he was not well enough to stand trial.

But the political climate in Chile had changed in his absence. That same month, Chile's first socialist president since Allende, Ricardo Lagos, took office.

Supporters of Augusto Pinochet sing near a monument in honour of five of his bodyguards who died in an unsuccessful 1986 attempt on his life
The general still has his supporters
Now there was a new desire to come to terms with Chile's past, culminating in a decision by a Chilean court in 2001 which ruled that Gen Pinochet should stand trial for covering up human rights abuses.

In a symbolic victory for his opponents, he was placed under house arrest for six weeks.

He was even ordered to report to the police to be registered as a criminal suspect and have mug shots and fingerprints taken.

But in July 2002, all charges against Gen Pinochet were dropped, after the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.

Four days later, he resigned from his post of senator-for-life, blaming the state of his health.

Birthday message

Gen Pinochet has spent the last few years fighting several attempts to get him to stand trial on charges of financial and human rights abuses.

Since 2000, Chilean courts have stripped Gen Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution several times, but every time - thus far - he has avoided a trial, usually after his lawyers successfully argued that he was not well enough.

In November 2006, he was indicted over the execution of two bodyguards of President Allende in 1973 and ordered to remain under house arrest - the fifth time he has been placed under house arrest by the Chilean authorities.

The indictment came just after Gen Pinochet celebrated his 91st birthday, a day on which he issue a statement in which he spoke of his love of Chile and the motivation for his actions:

"Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbour no rancour against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all and that I take political responsibility for everything that was done, which had no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration," Gen Pinochet said.

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