Mon, Jul 26, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Investigations into Pinochet unnerve British institutions

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

The law is finally catching up with General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator. Having for years eluded justice on allegations of torture, murder and international terrorism, he will shortly be facing charges of corruption, tax evasion and the laundering of enormous profits from drug dealing and the privatization of large swaths of the Chilean economy in the 1970s.

The reputation he carefully cultivated for financial probity, which was trumpeted by his many supporters around the world -- from former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger -- faces final demolition.

Revelations from the US Senate's Sub-Committee on Investigations this month about Pinochet's financial dealings will ensure this. They also make extremely unpleasant reading for the UK government, the British judiciary and the Bank of England.

While under arrest in a small house by a golf course at Virginia Water in Surrey, he was able to shuffle millions of dollars of his personal fortune through Riggs, a Washington-based bank with a branch at 60 St. James Street in London's West End.

Over the past 10 days, Riggs, which held accounts for other Pinochet family members, the Chilean army and the secret police, has been sold off for US$779 million, a fraction of its former worth.

The London Metropolitan Police arrested Pinochet on an international warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon for murder and torture in London in October 1998. After a deal between then British Home Secretary Jack Straw and then Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, he was allowed to escape trial in Spain and return to Chile in 2000 on spurious health grounds.

The Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations is scathing about the regulation of Riggs in Britain and the US.

It reports that it "opened at least six accounts and issued several certificates of deposit for Augusto Pinochet, former President of Chile, while he was un-der house arrest in the United Kingdom and his assets were the subject of court proceedings ... altered the names of his personal accounts to disguise their ownership; transferred [US$1.6 million] from London to the United States while Pinochet was in detention and the subject of a court order to attach his bank accounts ... and delivered over [US$1.9 million] in cashiers' checks to Pinochet in Chile to enable him to obtain substantial cash payments from banks in that country."

In 1996 and 1998, the sub-committee said, Riggs helped Pinochet set up two offshore shell corporations in the Bahamas, Ashburton Company and Althorp Investment. Neither company had any employees or offices, but were listed as the nominal owners of Riggs' bank accounts and certificates of deposit that benefited Pinochet and his family.

The former dictator had up to US$8 million in Riggs accounts, though his pay as army head in 1998 was a mere US$10,057.

Pinochet, 88, is being investigated in Santiago for tax fraud and peculation following the US Senate report.

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