U.S. officials took the elder daughter of former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet into custody at a Washington-area airport Wednesday because of an arrest warrant in Chile. The Chilean government said Lucia Pinochet had requested asylum in the United States.
U.S. officials would not comment on the asylum report, but Chilean Interior Minister Francisco Vidal said U.S. Ambassador Craig Kelly had informed his government of the request.
Lucia Pinochet had been indicted by a Chilean judge on tax evasion and false passport charges, Chilean and U.S. officials said.
She was taken into custody after she got off a plane from Argentina that landed at Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, around 7 a.m. ET.
“We are interviewing her,” said Suzanne Trevino, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. While Pinochet was being detained, she was not under arrest.
Under normal procedures, a person who tries to enter the U.S. and is detained by customs is entitled to an admissibility interview.
“If they are not going to be admitted into the U.S., then they would be put on a flight back to the country that they originated in,” Trevino said.
Awaiting asylum decision
In Santiago, the Chilean capital, Foreign Minister Ignacio Walker said the U.S. government told Chile on Wednesday that Pinochet was being transferred to an immigration service detention center and that a decision could be made on her request for asylum within three days.
“We are absolutely confident that it will be rejected,” Walker said.
Pinochet “was the target of an international arrest warrant issued by a Chilean judge,” said Chilean presidential spokesman Osvaldo Puccio.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was asked whether the United States has special policies on extradition for children of former dictators. He said the issue in this case was the arrest warrants, not ancestry.
Rodrigo Garcia Pinochet, Lucia Pinochet’s son, sent a letter from his mother to the Santiago newspaper La Segunda. He had accompanied his mother on the first leg of her journey to Washington, a land trip to Argentina.
In the letter she said she is “convinced that in this case they are not trying to determine the source of my father’s funds, but some people aim at defaming each and every member of my family.”
She said she tried to talk to the judge in the case before traveling, but he would not meet with her. “As I never received an answer to my request for a meeting and I was never formally notified of the measures the judge would take, I traveled on Jan. 22nd,” she wrote. “Once I get back, I will be able to clarify any doubts.” The letter mentioned no date for her return.
Pinochet maintains her innocence
In the letter, Pinochet denied any wrongdoing. Calling her assets modest, she said she earned them “with my personal effort and dedication, always acting in a correct manner.”
Chilean Foreign Minister Ignacio Walker said he ordered his country’s consul in Washington, Felipe Cousino, to try to interview Pinochet.
He said she apparently has three alternatives: to have U.S. authorities send her back to Argentina; to voluntarily return to Chile and appear in court; or to return to Argentina voluntarily, “which would open the way for an extradition request by Chile.”
“The government has no recommendation to make on this,” Walker said. “Our interest is that the judicial resolution be obeyed.”
The case stems from a scandal that erupted in Washington itself.
Lucia Pinochet and several members of her family are implicated in a scandal involving the now-defunct Riggs Bank of Washington. The bank provided diplomatic banking services for decades until a Senate investigation found irregularities in its operations.
Allegations against Gen. Pinochet
Congressional investigators alleged that Gen. Pinochet worked with bank managers to set up phony offshore companies to hide the existence of about $8 million at the bank.
A subsequent judicial investigation in Chile determined that Gen. Pinochet had deposited as much as $28 million in accounts in several countries.
Last year, Gen. Pinochet issued a statement denying any wrongdoing and claiming his advisers had paid all of his outstanding taxes.
Also indicted in the case were Pinochet’s wife, also named Lucia, and his adult children Veronica, Jacqueline and Marco Antonio. Charges were also filed against Marco Antonio’s wife and a lawyer and a secretary for Pinochet. They are all free on bail.
Pinochet’s older son, Augusto, was charged only with using a false passport.
Investigators say the defendants together evaded $2.05 million in taxes.