Pinochet immunity overturned Britain's Law Lords deal stunning setback to ex-Chilean dictator

'A wake-up call to tyrants'

Verdict clears way for courts to consider extradition request

November 26, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet suffered a stunning legal setback yesterday as Britain's House of Lords ruled that the former dictator was not immune from arrest for alleged human rights crimes committed during his 17-year rule.

In a dramatic 3-2 decision that brought gasps from the visitors gallery, the senior panel of judges known as the Law Lords overturned a lower court ruling that Pinochet was immune from prosecution because he was as a former head of state.

The verdict opens the way for British courts to consider Spain's request to extradite Pinochet to face charges of genocide, terrorism and torture.

Human rights lawyers say the ruling could have a chilling effect on other dictators.

"It's a wake-up call to tyrants around the world who think about embarking on mass murder," said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. "They might not get away with it the next time."

Pinochet's judicial saga is far from over, as political and legal wrangling could keep him in Britain for months. The battle over the ailing general, who turned 83 yesterday and was in a hospital recovering from back surgery, also could put Britain's ethical foreign policy to its toughest test.

Many among Britain's Labor Party elite cut their political teeth in left-wing politics in the 1970s, and for them, Pinochet was a villain who overthrew a democratically elected government.

The next step is up to Home Secretary Jack Straw, who has the final word on all extradition proceedings. Straw has until Wednesday to decide whether the Spanish extradition request can go before a London court. If Straw blocks the case, Pinochet would go free. If the case goes ahead, it could wind its way back along a familiar route -- to the highest court in the land, the House of Lords, and then, back to Straw's desk.

France, Belgium and Switzerland also have sought the extradition of Pinochet, who resigned as president in 1990 and made himself senator for life.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who took tea with the general before his Oct. 16 arrest, said the "old, frail and sick" Pinochet should be released, a view shared by the Chilean government.

Hernan Larrain, a right-wing Chilean senator, visited Pinochet and said the general was "composed, ready to go on. He said it is not easy to beat him."

But outside the House of Lords, the verdict brought rejoicing, as dozens of Chileans danced and wept after a rare legal victory over a dictator who came to power in a bloody military coup in September 1973. In his formal extradition request, Spanish investigating judge Baltasar Garzon implicated Pinochet in 3,178 murders or "disappearances."

"We are saying that, even when time passes, whatever happens, criminals will have to face up to judgment for their crimes," said Sola Sierra, president of the Families of the Disappeared of Chile.

The Law Lords faced a narrow, though difficult, appeal. The High Court in London had ruled in a 3-0 verdict that Pinochet's arrest was unlawful because he was entitled to sovereign immunity.

Yesterday, the usually sedate House of Lords crackled with tension and drama, as, one by one, the Law Lords announced a decision that was beamed worldwide via television.

In ruling against Pinochet, Lord Donald Nicholls said: "International law has made plain that certain types of conduct, including torture and hostage-taking, are not acceptable FTC conduct on the part of anyone. This applies as much to heads of state, or even more so, as it does to everyone else."

He added, "It cannot be stated too plainly that the acts of torture and hostage-taking with which Senator Pinochet is charged are offenses under United Kingdom state law."

He brushed aside the political ramifications of the case.

"Arguments about the effect on this country's diplomatic relations with Chile if extradition were allowed to proceed, or with Spain if refused, are not matters for the court."

Lord Johan van Zyl Steyn, who stood with the court majority, said the charges brought by Spain against Pinochet "are properly to be classified as conduct falling beyond the scope of his functions as head of state."

He added, "General Pinochet is not entitled to an immunity of any kind."

In a minority opinion, Lord Anthony Lloyd held that Pinochet was entitled to sovereign immunity.

"In committing the crimes which are alleged against him, was Senator Pinochet acting in his private capacity or was he acting in a sovereign capacity as head of state? In my opinion there can be only one answer. He was acting in a sovereign capacity. It has not been suggested that he was personally guilty of any of the crimes of torture or hostage-taking in the sense that he carried them out with his own hands."

Lord Lloyd added that the crimes of which Pinochet was accused "were governmental in nature."

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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