Dictator escaped calls for justice over reign of terror

Published December 11, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile - Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who terrorized his opponents for 17 years after taking power in a bloody coup, died Sunday (Dec. 10, 2006), putting an end to a decade of intensifying efforts to bring him to trial for human rights abuses blamed on his regime. He was 91.

Supporters saw Gen. Pinochet as a Cold War hero for overthrowing democratically elected President Salvador Allende at a time when the United States was working to destabilize his Marxist government and keep Chile from exporting communism in Latin America. But the world soon reacted in horror as Santiago's main soccer stadium filled with political prisoners to be tortured, shot or forced into exile.

Gen. Pinochet's dictatorship laid the groundwork for South America's most stable economy, but his crackdown on dissent left a lasting legacy: His name has become a byword for state terror, in many cases secretly supported by the United States, that retarded democratic change across the hemisphere.

Gen. Pinochet died with his family at his side at the Santiago Military Hospital on Sunday, a week after suffering a heart attack.

"This criminal has departed without ever being sentenced for all the acts he was responsible for during his dictatorship," lamented Hugo Gutierrez, a human rights lawyer involved in several lawsuits against Gen. Pinochet.

A small group of Gen. Pinochet supporters gathered outside the hospital, weeping and trading insults with people in passing cars. Some sang Chile's national anthem.

Many other Chileans saw his death as reason for celebration. Hundreds of cheering, flag-waving people crowded a major plaza in the capital, drinking champagne and tossing confetti.

"Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile represented one of most difficult periods in that nation's history," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman. "Our thoughts today are with the victims of his reign and their families."

Chile's government says at least 3,197 people were killed for political reasons during Gen. Pinochet's rule, but courts allowed the aging general to escape hundreds of criminal complaints as his health declined.

Gen. Pinochet left no doubt who was in charge after the Sept. 11, 1973, coup, when planes bombed the presidential palace and Allende committed suicide with a gun Fidel Castro had given him. "Not a leaf moves in this country if I'm not moving it," he said.