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May 23, 2017

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Pinochet homage heats up bitter debate over legacy

SANTIAGO, Chile -- The poster makes its plea from one of the pock-marked walls once splattered with blood at Londres 38, a former detention and torture center where 96 people were killed or disappeared during Chile's long dictatorship. It reads: "Pinochet, may your legacy die."

Yet that legacy is far from dead. Gen. Augusto Pinochet's loyalists on Sunday held their biggest gathering since his death in 2006, and it has ignited a national debate about the limits of freedom of speech as groups on the other side sought to block the event and then staged protests to try to disrupt it.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to try to disperse hundreds of anti-Pinochet demonstrators protesting the premiere of a documentary about the run-up to his dictatorship years. Twenty-two people were injured in clashes with police and 64 were arrested before those on both sides of the divide went home, authorities said.

The film cast Pinochet a national hero who saved Chile from communism and who died victimized by vengeful leftists who accused him of embezzlement and human rights crimes.

Inside the theater, hundreds of the former strongman's backers, known as "Pinochetistas" waved Chilean flags and held up photos of Pinochet. When his grandson, retired Captain Augusto Pinochet Molina, took the stage, they gave him a long standing ovation.

The screening was organized by Corporacion 11 de Septiembre, named for the day when Pinochet seized power in a bloody 1973 coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Marxist President Salvador Allende.

"We want to set the record straight on Pinochet," Juan Gonzalez, a retired army officer who leads the pro-Pinochet movement, told The Associated Press. "We have stoically put up with the lies and cheating and seen how the story has been manipulated."

Although Gonzalez's own sister Francisca has said publicly she was tortured by Pinochet's forces, Gonzalez disputes that there were human rights abuses during the dictatorship. He says those killed and tortured were casualties of a war against leftist subversion.

"Why can't we have a documentary if they have their monument to Allende," he said, referring to a statue outside the presidential palace with Allende's last words: "I have faith in Chile and its destiny."

Highly Polarized Debate

Relatives of the disappeared and more than a dozen human rights groups sent a letter to President Sebastian Pinera asking him to ban the event. Presidential Spokesman Andres Chadwick said on local TV Sunday that although organizers had the right to express themselves, he "regretted having supported a government that committed human rights abuses," and that "it is not necessary" to pay tribute to Pinochet.

Chile remains highly polarized over Pinochet and his 1973-90 rule.

His thick mustache, spotless dress uniforms and dark glasses, even the mere mention of his name, make many Chileans cringe with the memories of his shutting down Congress, outlawing political parties and sending thousands of dissidents into exile, while his police tortured and killed thousands more.

To his loyalists, though, Pinochet is the fatherly figure who oversaw Chile's growth into economic prosperity and kept it from becoming a failed socialist state.

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