World

FACING THE LAW

A landmark decision on Pinochet sets new rules for dictators

BARRY CAME December 7 1998
World

FACING THE LAW

A landmark decision on Pinochet sets new rules for dictators

BARRY CAME December 7 1998

FACING THE LAW

A landmark decision on Pinochet sets new rules for dictators

World

At the Grovelands Priory, a chic psychiatric retreat in leafy north London, there were few doubts about the outcome. The ambulance sat waiting on the hospital’s gravelled driveway, engine idling, ready for the 100-km dash to the Royal Air Force base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Police outriders mounted their motorcycles and gunned them into noisy life, while 40 of their uniformed colleagues fanned out to keep a watchful eye on a small knot of demonstrators. There were no more than 50 of them, gathered around a portable radio under a redwhite-and-blue Chilean flag, and even they seemed gloomily resigned to witnessing the imminent departure of the old man inside whom they all detested. But not long after 2 p.m., the mood suddenly changed. “He’s not going anywhere!” the young man with the radio,

Manuel Rivas-Taquias, shouted ecstatically in Spanish. “Three cheers for British justice!”

It was a cry that would soon echo around the world, and not only among those who want to see Gen. Augusto Pinochet answer for the crimes committed during the 17 long and brutal years he reigned as military strongman of Chile. For five British law lords did much more than determine the immediate future of the aging former dictator last week.

On the face of it, their dramatic 3 to 2 decision overturned a lower court ruling and committed Pinochet to custody in England while Spain seeks his extradition on charges of mass murder, torture and hostage-taking.

But the law lords, Britain’s highest court, also delivered a landmark ruling with far-reaching implications by categorically rejecting Pinochet’s claim that, as a former head of state, he enjoyed immunity for actions he carried out while in office. “International law has made plain that certain types of conduct, including torture and hostagetaking, are not acceptable conduct on the part of anyone,” declared Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, speaking for the majority. “This applies as much to heads of state, or even more so, as it does to everyone else. The contrary would make a mockery of international law.” The ruling delighted Pinochet’s opponents, dismayed his supporters and surprised most everyone else, not least the British and Spanish governments. Officials in both London and Madrid confidently expected the law lords to extricate them from the thorny political and diplomatic dilemma that first arose when Pinochet was arrested on Oct. 16 in response to an extradition warrant from crusading Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón. Until the lords delivered their verdict, on Pinochet’s 83rd birthday, there was good reason to

BARRY CAME

suppose that the ailing dictator would be allowed to fly home aboard the Chilean air force jet waiting for him at Brize Norton. On Oct. 28, England’s Lord Chief Justice Thomas Bingham had ruled that Pinochet was protected from extradition because of his legal immunity as a former head of state. But one by one last Wednesday afternoon, the law lords rose from their red leather benches in the ornate House of Lords to solemnly deliver the majority ruling for reversal that London-based Amnesty International lawyer Geoffrey Bindman later described as “the most important case of human rights law this century.”

International legal experts, human rights advocates and political figures around the globe quickly concurred. In Ottawa, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, described it as a “very symbolic day.” At her side, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said the decision is bound to accelerate the momentum generated last July, when 120 nations backed creation of a permanent international criminal court to try crimes against humanity. “The fact that immunity was denied,” he said, “is a singular decision in establishing that there is an international standard that does not prevent any person from escaping accountability.” The ruling is almost certain to intensify the global trend reflected in the host of international covenants that gave rise to the Nuremberg trials in Germany at the end of the Second World War and cur-

A MOST WANTED MAN Key actions by authorities outside Britain against Gen. Augusto Pinochet: Asking Britain to extradite the ex-dictator to face charges of genocide under Judge Baltasar Garzón's 300-page warrant involving the death or disappearance of more than 3,000 people in Chile, including dozens of Spaniards. Wants Pinochet extradited over the disappearance of three French nationals in Chile under his rule. Pressing Britain to extradite him for kidnapping and murder involving a Swiss-Chilean student who disappeared in 1977. Requesting extradition on the basis of court action by six Chileans in Belgium accusing him of murder. Deciding whether to request extradition on charges of assault and false imprisonment filed against him by three German citizens and backed by the top court. Considering a request by a Chilean refugee that Pinochet face trial in Italy for genocide, kidnapping and torture, including the deaths of 31 Italians. Examining allegations by Chileans in Sweden of murder and torture under Pinochet.

rently allow the prosecution of war criminals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Until recently, though, many of those covenants have seemed largely toothless, allowing dictators like Pinochet or Cambodia’s Pol Pot to escape punishment for crimes they helped perpetrate. But the law lords’ decision may be another sign that attitudes are changing. “What it demonstrates is that in this world principles do exist and that dictators cannot travel with impunity and think they are above the law,” said Chilean MP Isabel Allende, daughter of president Salvador Allende, who was killed in the 1973 coup that propelled Pinochet to power. The New York City-based group Human Rights Watch described the ruling as “a wake-up call to tyrants around the world who think about embarking on mass murder. They might not get away with it the next time.” Not everyone welcomed the law lords’ words. In Santiago, the Chilean army’s high command noted its “profound frustration, indignation and unease” while across town, at the Pinochet Foundation, supporters of the former dictator erupted in anger, thrashing a visiting British television crew and later taking to the streets in a violent demonstration. The centre-left Chilean government of President Eduardo Frei, no friend of Pinochet, nevertheless sent Foreign Minister José Insulza to London and Madrid to urge the British and Spanish authorities to release the former dictator, claiming he could face charges in Chile. Pinochet was not without highly placed support in Britain either. Former prime minister, now baroness, Margaret Thatcher, an old ally of Pinochet’s, told the government the former dictator was “old, frail and sick and on compassionate grounds alone should be allowed to return to Chile. I remain convinced that the national interests of both Chile and Britain would be best served by releasing him.”

Privately, most senior members of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government would probably agree, given Britain’s close economic and military ties with a nation that sits next door to old adversary Argentina. But even though Home Secretary Jack Straw does have the power to release Pinochet on compassionate grounds, few Labour MPs last week were expecting that to happen. “If Straw lets the general fly the coop,” confided one Labour backbencher, requesting anonymity, “the backlash from the left wing of the party would be ferocious.” It would also shred Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s much-vaunted “ethical” foreign policy. Both Straw and Cook have their roots in Labour’s left wing. Straw, in fact, first earned his reputation more than 20 years ago as a radical student leader marching in demonstrations against Latin America’s military dictators, including Pinochet. The home secretary, however, has been careful to stress that he is approaching the case in a “quasi-judicial” manner.

Ultimately, Pinochet’s fate rests in Straw’s hands. The Spanish extradition request sits on his desk, as do extradition warrants from France, Switzerland and Belgium, and more may be coming from other European countries. Ottawa is also looking into a complaint by a Montreal nun who was tortured in Chile in 1973. Given the legal complexities involved, most observers expect Straw to allow the Spanish request to proceed at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court in London. Pinochet may then spend many months, perhaps as long as a year, entangled in Britain’s laborious extradition procedures. The likely timing of his first court appearance is propitious: Dec. 11, one day after the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. □