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Pinochet victims say justice died with dictator

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Family and friends honored Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator who died a year ago on Monday, but victims of political violence said they were bitter he was never tried for human rights crimes.

A supporter of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet holds a sculpture of Pinochet outside a military church during a commemorative mass December 10, 2007. December 10 marks the first anniversary of the Pinochet´s decease after suffering a heart attack at the military hospital in Santiago. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Pinochet, 91 when heart failure killed him, was investigated and prosecuted but never convicted on dozens of charges of human rights violations during his 17-year government, as his lawyers argued he was too frail.

“It makes me very sad that in our country justice was never seen... It will never be possible to say that he was guilty, and it will never be possible to declare him innocent,” said Judge Juan Guzman Tapia, who presided over many rights cases against Pinochet.

Several judges came close to convicting Pinochet on different charges in the years before he died, but higher courts threw some cases out due to his ill health.

The former head of Pinochet’s secret service is in jail, along with some two dozen other security agents convicted of rights crimes. Hundreds of other former members of his security forces are under investigation and victims and their families say justice is dragging its feet.

“This fight suffered a serious blow with the death of Pinochet,” said Pedro Matta, who was tortured by Pinochet’s secret police at the dictatorship’s most infamous interrogation center, the Villa Grimaldi in Santiago.

The anniversary of Pinochet’s death began as a muted affair in Chile, with only passing mention in the media, but human rights groups planned a march later in the day.

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In the morning Pinochet supporters waved banners outside a Catholic church in downtown Santiago where his wife and five children attended a memorial mass alongside friends and ex-ministers who served in his 1973-1990 government.

“All of us here want to pray for Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, your servant, who loved his country so much and did so much for it but who was treated so unjustly,” his eldest daughter Lucia said.

Pinochet polarized Chile until his death, arousing the hatred of many for a regime that saw more than 3,000 people killed in political violence.

Others praised him for saving Chile from Marxism and for establishing an economic model that helped Chile become one of Latin America’s most progressive, stable economies.

Pinochet came to power in a coup in 1973, launching a 17-year dictatorship where at least 28,000 were tortured and an estimated 200,000 fled into exile to escape repression, persecution, torture, curfews and censorship.

The Augusto Pinochet Foundation will commemorate the anniversary with a conference featuring speeches on Pinochet as a soldier, as an architect for change and as a victim of persecution.

“If this country can be characterized for something it is for being ungrateful,” said Pablo Rodriguez, who had led Pinochet’s defense team.

Pinochet stepped down in 1990 after he was voted out in a referendum.

“In a way, he paid in life for his crimes, not in the way that so many people suffered, but in the way that he did not end well,” said Judge Guzman.

Pinochet’s ashes sit in a chapel on a family estate at Los Boldos, near Chile’s Pacific coast. The family is evaluating opening the site to the public.

Reporting by Pav Jordan, Erik Lopez and Antonio de la Jara; Edited by Fiona Ortiz and Richard Meares