Pinochet draws parallels with another 'dirty war' commander

Britain's record on responding to other countries' requests to hand over human rights abusers is blemished by the case of Alfredo Astiz of the Argentinean army.

Lieutenant Astiz, who led the invasion of South Georgia - thus precipitating the Falklands conflict in 1982 - has been identified as playing an active role in the repression during Argentina’s period of military rule from 1976-83.

The man who revealed himself to his numerous victims as the "blond angel of death" was captured with his garrison of 140 men after surrendering to a liberating British unit half the size.

Despite pressure form Sweden, which demanded the extradition of Astiz for the murder of the Swedish-Argentine teenager, Dagmar Hagelin, Astiz was freed by Britain and repatriated to Argentina at the end of the war.

Lieutenant Astiz was in charge of operations at the dreaded naval mechanical school in Buenos Aires where thousands disappeared but he has never been convicted in Argentina despite being sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in 1990 by a court in France for the murder of French nuns, Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon in 1977.

Astiz also infiltrated various human rights organisations including one based in London that led to countless unsuspecting victims falling into his grasp.

In a chilling interview with the magazine Tres Puntos earlier this year Astiz recalled: "People asked me how many disappeared. I tell them no more than 9,500."

When asked about their eventual fate the unrepentant, but still serving officer replied: "We cleansed them all, we killed them all, there was no other solution."

The few leading officers who were jailed after the fall of the junta following the return to civilian rule have since been released under a sweeping amnesty law after persistent investigations into their human rights violations provoked a series of army rebellions during the presidency of Raul Alfonsin.

His successor, Carlos Menem, has pardoned the Generals Videla, Viola and Galtieri who presided over a regime that saw around 30,000 young Argentines not only lose their liberty, but also their lives.

Further prosecutions of the armed forces are virtually impossible after the 'law of due obedience' was passed which accepts that junior officers were only following orders. This was followed by the Punto Final decree that literally marked a full stop to further investigations probing the activities of the army, navy and air force during what they called "the process of national reconstruction."

In January this year, Astiz warned the current Peronist administration to "Stop cornering the army," which was widely interpreted as a threat to Argentina's infant democracy.

He had earlier boasted that "I am the best technically prepared man for killing a politician or journalist in this country."

Argentina walks the same precarious tightrope as Chile when examining the past, appeasing the military in order to ensure that it is men in suits rather than soldiers in uniform who reside in the presidential palace.

This is reflected in a statement Carlos Menem made during his recent state visit to Britain when he maintained he was "100 per cent behind the Chilean government," in its call for Pinochet's immediate and unconditional release.

Whether Britain behaves differently towards Chile's ex-dictator than they did concerning Lieutenant Astiz 16 years ago awaits to be seen as France and Sweden seek to try another Latin American military man for murdering their nationals.