Pinochet heads home

extradition is blocked

Britain rejects trial of ailing ex-dictator

March 03, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet headed home yesterday a free but broken man after British Home Secretary Jack Straw blocked his extradition and ended a contentious, nearly l7-month saga that overturned legal conventions, hampered diplomacy and divided world opinion.

Pinochet, 84, ailing after suffering several strokes last fall, took off in a medically equipped Chilean plane from a British air force base hours after Straw said the former dictator was medically unfit to stand trial on human rights charges.

Straw thus put a final refusal to unprecedented extradition requests from Spain, Belgium, France and Switzerland, which sought to try Pinochet for crimes he is accused of committing during his bloody, 17-year rule that began when he seized power in a 1973 coup that toppled an elected Marxist president.

Straw declared that the Pinochet case had helped to firmly establish that human rights abuses of the sort attributed to Pinochet's regime may be tried anywhere in the world.

He said the case "established, beyond question, the principle that those who commit human rights abuses in one country cannot assume that they are safe elsewhere. That will be the lasting legacy of this case."

But the home secretary, a former left-wing student leader, acknowledged "the practical consequences of refusing to extradite Senator Pinochet to Spain is that he will probably not be tried anywhere.

"Ultimately, I was driven to the conclusion that a trial of the charges against Senator Pinochet, however desirable, was simply no longer possible," Straw told Britain's House of Commons in a statement that was greeted with cries of "shame" and "disgrace" from members of his Labor Party.

After Straw's ruling, British prosecutors declined to take up the case and no appeals were filed.

Thus, Pinochet's failing health trumped the legal arguments. In October, eight days after Pinochet was excused from appearing before a local magistrate, Chile formally asked for the general's release on health grounds.

A four-member medical panel examined Pinochet in January, and based on its report, Straw said he was inclined to block the extradition. He gave interested parties and governments time to pursue their case in the British courts. The countries seeking Pinochet's extradition lodged opinions from their doctors questioning the report's conclusions.

Straw said he found "the conclusion of the original report was correct."

Letters explain reasons

In a letter, drafted by a government official and sent to the Spanish ambassador in Britain, Straw's decision was explained in detail. Other letters were sent to ambassadors from France, Switzerland and Belgium.

The letter to the Spanish ambassador said the British medical team concluded that Pinochet "would not at present be mentally capable of meaningful participation in a trial," and said "the disabilities identified in the medical report are due to widespread brain damage."

The letter said "Pinochet would be unable to follow the process of a trial sufficiently to instruct counsel. He would have difficulty in understanding the content and implications of questions put to him and would have inadequate insight into this difficulty. He would have difficulty in making himself understood in replying to questions."

Straw made the medical reports public for the first time yesterday. Among Pinochet's ailments listed by doctors in a Jan. 6 report were memory defects and Parkinson's-like symptoms, as well as cardiac problems that required a pacemaker.

British police, acting on a Spanish extradition warrant, arrested Pinochet in October 1998. Human rights advocates hoped it would establish a far-reaching warning: that the world was no longer safe for human rights abusers, for they might be brought to justice anywhere, anytime. It also gave Pinochet's longtime opponents an opportunity to air their grievances and remind the world that in the coup's wake more than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared, and thousands of others fled Chile.

The case's long-anticipated conclusion was met with jubilation by Pinochet's supporters, resignation among his foes and disappointment in European capitals.

"The nightmare is over," said retired Chilean Gen. Luis Cortes, director of the Pinochet Foundation in Chile.

But according to a torture victim of the Pinochet regime, Christina Navarrete, the case should continue, with Pinochet tried in Chile.

"I think that the victims of torture of Pinochet and the victims of torture worldwide have been denied the opportunity to bring a murderer and a torturer to justice," Navarrete told Britain's Sky News.

Bernard Bertossa, the Swiss prosecutor who sought Pinochet's extradition, charged that Britain remained a "comfortable haven for criminals."

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