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Pinochet flies home, but Britain declares that...

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2000-03-03 00:10
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Ecumenical News International
Daily News Service
02 March 2000


Pinochet flies home, but Britain declares that dictators will
find no haven
ENI-00-0076

By Cedric Pulford in London and Edmund Doogue in Geneva
2 March (ENI) - On the day that General Augusto Pinochet left
the United Kingdom after 16 months under house arrest, the
British home secretary, Jack Straw, speaking in London, said the
"lasting legacy" of the case was that "those who commit human
rights offences cannot assume they will be safe elsewhere".

His comments were echoed by Amnesty International, also in
London, and by the World Council of Churches, in Geneva.

Straw, who announced on 2 March that the 84-year-old former
Chilean dictator was being released on health grounds, also said
the impact of the case had been felt world-wide. But he added
that because of Pinochet's poor health it would have been an
abuse of his right to a fair trial to allow the extradition bid
by Spain and three other countries to continue.

Spain, Belgium, France and Switzerland, together with Amnesty
International, other human rights organisations and
church-related groups, wanted Pinochet to go on trial for his
alleged involvement in atrocities while he was president of Chile
(1973-90.)

Straw's announcement was made public at 8am London time today,
after the Chilean air force jet which had been standing by for
weeks was moved to an undisclosed location in order to head off
any attacks on the Pinochet convoy. The general was driven about
240 kilometres amid tight security from his rented house at
Wentworth, south of London, to the Waddington Royal Airforce base
in Lincolnshire. From there the Chilean plane took off at 1.15pm,
taking the general home to Chile.

In London, the leading human rights organisation Amnesty
International (AI) described the precedent set by the Pinochet
case as "the most important since the Nuremberg trials [of Nazi
war leaders]". AI said in a statement: "The case has confirmed
that the crime of torture can now be prosecuted anywhere in the
world, no matter where the torture was committed, or by whom." AI
added that the case had ramifications for other leaders accused
of human rights abuses, including Slobodan Milosevic of
Yugoslavia.

AI spokesman Richard Bunting told ENI: "We sought a fair and
transparent process, and this was essentially achieved. However,
we would have liked the final decision to release Pinochet to be
made by a court [not a government minister]."

He said the organisation was pleased to have played its part in
achievements that were "a huge step forward": heads of state do
not have sovereign immunity for torture offences, and medical
tests affecting the outcome of a case cannot be kept secret from
parties involved.

ENI invited views on the Pinochet case from Churches Together in
Britain and Ireland, representing mainstream churches, and
individually from the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist and
Baptist churches. But none was able to comment today.

However in Geneva the World Council of Churches (WCC) praised
the British government for rigorously observing the rule of law
in its treatment of General Pinochet, but said that the
controversy was not over. It was now up to the Chilean
authorities to act against the general, the council said.

Dwain Epps, co-ordinator of international affairs for the WCC
told ENI: "We are profoundly grateful to the home secretary of
the United Kingdom, and to the [British] judicial system for
having dealt so seriously with this case and for having applied
the law so strictly and in such an open and transparent manner.

"We are also grateful to the governments of the UK, Spain,
Switzerland, France and Belgium for their efforts to achieve
justice in the case of General Pinochet.

"In the process," Epps added, "an extremely important new
precedent has been set - no dictator can again, at least in
Europe, feel that he can move with impunity.

"The supporters of Pinochet have agreed that this matter is now
over. But at the World Council of Churches we do not believe that
the case of General Pinochet is over, and it will not be over
until the full truth is told and heard - about the abuses
committed during his regime - in a way that satisfies his victims
and the families of his victims.

"It's our sincere hope that if General Pinochet is to return to
his country then the Chilean government will hold to the
commitments it gave in its legal arguments in seeking General
Pinochet's release, and will bring charges against him in the
appropriate Chilean courts."

The Pinochet drama in October 1998 began with the general's
arrest while in a London hospital bed. Although the British
government had originally given him a VIP welcome, it allowed the
extradition process, initiated by a Spanish judge, Baltasar
Garzon, to proceed.

The basis of the claim was that Britain and Spain, as well as
Chile, were signatories to the international torture convention,
which, it was argued, gave legal jurisdiction to other countries
besides the one where offences were committed.

In the first court hearing in London three high court judges
ruled that Pinochet, as a former head of state, enjoyed immunity
for acts committed by his regime.

This was overturned by the judicial section of the House of
Lords in November 1998 - but this finding was itself
sensationally set aside by another House of Lords panel on the
grounds of the appearance of possible bias. (One of the House of
Lords judges, Lord Hoffmann, had undisclosed links with Amnesty
International.)

Another House of Lords hearing in March 1999 held that Pinochet
was liable for offences committed after the date that Britain
signed the torture convention. This meant that most of the
charges fell, but some remained.

After the British home secretary, Jack Straw, allowed the
extradition process to continue, Pinochet was committed last
October for trial on 34 charges of torture (most of them added by
Judge Baltasar Garzon after the House of Lords ruling) and one of
conspiracy.

However, on 5 January this year Pinochet submitted to medical
tests carried out by an independent panel, and a few days later
Straw announced that he intended to free the general on health
grounds.

By now, Belgium, France and Switzerland had joined Spain in
seeking to extradite Pinochet. Last month Straw was ordered by a
court to show the relevant governments the contents of the
medical report.

Spain indicated that it accepted Straw's decision, and
continuing moves by the other three countries were stymied by the
lack of authority by Straw to proceed with the extradition
process - the essential first step that allowed Spain to start
the process in October 1998.

Even on 2 March, Pinochet's last day in Britain, there were
reports of an unprecedented, "last gasp" court challenge to
Straw's final decision by one of the four countries or by Amnesty
International. In the event none came, and the general left for
Chile.