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The ghost of Chile's repressive past returns home to haunt those who suffered at his hand

When General Augusto Pinochet left Chile in 1998, he still had a fearsome aura of power after vanquishing more than 3,000 voices of protest during his 17-year military rule. Today he returns in a wheelchair, an unwanted ghost of Chile's repressive past.

Here in Santiago, very few people expect this old soldier just to fade away. In the wealthy enclaves of high-walled villas on the heights above the Chilean capital, the general's supporters were flying the national colours at 5am local time, when they learnt of Jack Straw's decision to let their former leader evade trial and fly home.

They popped open bottles of local fizzy wine and planned how to welcome the former dictator Chilean conservatives had called "the only political prisoner in Britain".

Hours before the general boarded a Chilean air force jet home from RAF Waddington, hundreds of right-wing supporters danced jigs of joy in the street outside the Pinochet Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving his reputation and awarding military scholarships.

But politicians from right and left pledged there would be no hero's homecoming, because they want to distance themselves from a man who has become a global pariah.

The Home Secretary's decision yesterday to let the frail 84-year-old general avoid extradition for murder, torture and terrorism charges because of health concerns is not widely seen as cause for celebration.

General Pinochet is scorned for his criminal persecution of leftist opponents even in his former stronghold. Only now do people dare openly to use his nickname, Pinnocchio, acknowledging the extent of his lies. A Mori Chile poll in January found two-thirds of those asked believed he should be tried for human rights abuses.

Marta Lagos, a pollster, said "It is a positive reaction on all sides. Pinochet supporters think they have won a point against Spain – not England. His opponents think they have won because now he may be tried here."

Human rights activists in Chile, emboldened by General Pinochet's 17-month house arrest, filed further torture charges against him. If the senator is stripped of his parliamentary immunity, he may eventually face a trial in Santiago before Judge Juan Guzman on 59 separate counts. The families of the disappeared will press these lawsuits and ask the new centre-left government to back charges that might bring General Pinochet to trial.

Jack Straw's remarks that a trial is unlikely in Chile will be taken up as a challenge for Chileans.

"I'm all too well aware of the practical consequence of refusing to extradite Senator Pinochet to Spain is that he will probably not be tried anywhere," Mr Straw told parliament on Wednesday. "I'm very conscious of the sense of injury that is bound to be felt by those who suffered from breaches of human rights in Chile." Yet President-elect Ricardo Lagos, a confidant of the late President Salvador Allende who was toppled by General Pinochet's coup, challenged the leader on national television at the height of his dictatorship.

Mr Lagos said yesterday: "Democracy is a fake if justice doesn't work." After the closest election on record in Chile, Mr Lagos' s victory speech in January had urged the country's judiciary to handle the controversial case with expediency.

It will be difficult for the general to wave away these allegations after his homecoming. A group of 643 ex-political prisoners will sue him citing "cruel, inhuman and degrading crimes" against them while they were in detention, and the wording of their lawsuit is similar to the case presented by Spain in 1998.

Human rights lawyers insist that no amnesty absolves the former government from inflicting such widespread "physical and mental abuse". But as a Senator for Life, General Pinochet has immunity.

A political analyst, Marta Lagos – no relation to President Lagos – said yesterday: "Let's hope Judge Guzman has the strength to oppose the veiled menace of the military. They will defend Pinochet by all legitimate means."

Dr Patricio Bustos, who was jailed and tortured in 1975 for giving medical aid to dissidents during the dictatorship, said: "This is a sad moment for democracy and for Chile. Pinochet's return is built on two lies. That he will be judged in Chile – which he won't – and that if he died abroad he would become a martyr. He wouldn't have.

"This would have been a lesson for others. But now this man has come back, he will resume his post as political head of the armed forces."

Because the general was expected to be whisked away immediately to a military hospital for a health check, the airport was not the focus for mass demonstrations. A handful of pickets, denouncing the old regime's human rights abuses, was expected to turn up. But all the real action is expected at the four military-controlled blocks which surround the hospital.

Dianora Zalaquett, an educator based in Santiago, said: "I do not expect big protests either way because people are on a different wavelength now. They recognise the extent of military excesses during the regime but want to get on with their lives."

Viviana Diaz, president of the protest group Families of the Detained-Disappeared, said: "We are going to demand justice. He is going to be put on trial in Chile. He comes condemned by the world, thanks to Spanish and British justice."