THE extraordinary legal saga of General Augusto Pinochet, Chiles former dictator,
is moving towards its close, wreathed in the same cloud of controversy and confusion which
has surrounded the case ever since the generals arrest in October 1998. Jack Straw,
Britains home secretary, is planning to send the 84-year-old general home to Chile
next week following a report by a team of independent doctors that he is medically unfit
to stand trial in Spain, which is seeking his extradition on charges of torture.
Predictably, human-rights groups are outraged, accusing Mr Straw of a political fix to
save his government further embarrassment. Just as predictably, the generals
defenders in Chile and Britain are delighted, praising Mr Straw for belatedly calling a
halt to legal proceedings which they say are politically motivated and should never have
begun. Both sides have missed the point.
Mr Straw deserves neither the praise nor the
blame heaped upon him. Although there is no denying that the British government will be
glad to see the back of General Pinochet, that has been true for the past 15 months, and
yet Mr Straw has left as much of the case as possible to the courts, intervening only when
forced to do so by law. His announcement this week is no exception. He has repeatedly
refused to halt the case on medical grounds. It was only after Chiles government
made a formal request, backed by medical evidence, for the case to be halted that Mr Straw
appointed four eminent doctors to examine the general.
Mr Straw has muddied the waters a bit by
failing to get General Pinochet to agree to the public release of the doctors
report. But the report has been seen by British prosecutors as well as Mr Straw, and he
has given the generals opponents a week to argue against his release or to mount a
court challenge. There is no reason to doubt the doctors unequivocal and
unanimous conclusion that, after a series of strokes last September and October, and
the worsening of a number of other ailments, the general is unfit to stand trial. If the
general is so feeble that he is unlikely to survive a trial, or be capable of following
the proceedings, justice demands that he be allowed to go home, whatever his alleged
If the general does return to Chile
next week, as now looks likely, it will be no victory for him or his supporters. He left
Chile for his trip to Britain with all the trappings and dignity of a former head of
state, and still wielding considerable political clout in the country which he had ruled
with an iron hand for 18 years. He returns a pitiful figure, too old and mentally
incompetent to answer the charges against him, with the systematic torture, murder and
hostage-taking of his brutal regime advertised to the world.
And the real significance of the
Pinochet case goes much further than this. Although a clutch of human-rights treaties
passed since the second world war have supposedly outlawed murder, torture and arbitrary
arrest by governments, dictators all over the world have continued to employ such methods
with impunity, safe in the knowledge that, even if they lost power, they were beyond the
reach of any law. The Pinochet case has changed that forever.
Despite all the confusion surrounding
the case, there is no doubt that it constitutes a landmark in international law. Two
separate panels of Law Lords, members of one of the most cautious supreme courts in the
world, have found that a former head of state is not, as many previously thought, immune
from prosecution for crimes against humanity.
The fact that France, Belgium and
Switzerland, in addition to Spain, have also requested the generals extradition, is
a sign that prosecutors and governments in other countries are also no longer willing
always to turn a blind eye to the crimes of repressive rulers abroad. There is still a
long way to go before the likes of General Pinochet are pursued consistently, or
everywhere, by the forces of the law. But many a comfortable exile is now nervously
consulting his lawyers, or ought to be.