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Western Press Review: Pinochet's Arrest Poses Questions

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 19 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The arrest Friday in London of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet attracts a good deal of comment in the Western press today and Sunday. Pinochet was arrested by British police at the request of two Spanish judges, who reportedly have charged him with genocide.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Pinochet was not the worst kind of dictator...

For Britain's Financial Times, "Pinochet was not the worst kind of dictator...After ruling Chile for 17 years," the paper points out in its editorial, "Gen. Pinochet handed over a thriving economy to a healthy democracy. For this reason he still retains the loyalty of about a quarter of the population."

The editorial continues: "Yet some things cannot be forgotten. His arrest in the UK on charges of committing atrocities against Spanish citizens will be widely applauded. It underlines a belief that no one should be above the law, even if (as is the case with Pinochet) he has been able to negotiate immunity in his own country."

The paper also says that Pinochet's arrest "should be welcomed (because) it sends out a signal that those accused of terrorism and torture will face stronger international cooperation to bring them to trial...A trial of Gen. Pinochet would, moreover, show that Western democracies do not now believe that torture and murder can ever be excused for political and economic reasons."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Pinochet was an unstinting ally of Britain

The conservative Daily Telegraph is far less sure that Pinochet's arrest was a wise move. Its editorial says: "There is no denying that (Pinochet's) seizure of power was bloody. Many Chileans lost their lives, some of them guilty of nothing more than Left-wing sympathies or trade-union activism...Yet," the paper continues, "guiltless Chileans also died under (Pinochet's predecessor, Socialist President Salvador) Allende, and thousands more would have suffered had he remained in office."

The DT goes on: "It is worth remembering that the Pinochet regime was endorsed by two-thirds of the electorate in a referendum in 1980, and that it relinquished power peacefully when it narrowly lost a second referendum in 1988."

The paper concludes: "It is also perhaps worth remembering that, throughout his time in office, Pinochet was an unstinting ally of (Britain)....Yet our country...has now detained him...That we should deal so shoddily with a friendly state is bad enough; that we should simultaneously display...contempt for the law is shameful."

OBSERVER: Pinochet's arrest is a very good way to celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In an editorial yesterday, the left-of-center (Sunday) Observer hailed "the arrest and launch of (legal) proceedings against an evil man..." The paper wrote: "The Government may not have formally initiated yesterday's events. But by according with the Spanish request to detain the former dictator (the Labor Government) it has shown its support for an international criminal court for the trial of war criminals is not pious cant."

The Observer also said: "This year is the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights....On torture, on the death penalty, on the worst aspects of the arms trade and on the growing support for a war-crimes court, Britain is establishing an honorable record. All in all, (Pinochet's arrest) is a very good way to celebrate the Declaration's anniversary."

NEW YORK TIMES: Pinochet's arrest shows the growing significance of international human-rights law

In a legal analysis for the New York Times today, Robert Pear emphasizes that Pinochet's arrest "shows the growing significance of international human-rights law, suggesting that officials accused of atrocities have fewer places to hide these days, even if they are carrying diplomatic passports..."

The commentary continues: "A growing body of international law has in the last 10 years made it somewhat easier to reach across borders and apprehend suspects accused of torture, genocide and other 'crimes against humanity.'"

Pear goes on: "The (Pinochet) case raises many complex legal questions. For example, does Pinochet have any immunity because of his status as a former head of state or because of his current status as a 'senator for life' in Chile? Chile granted him amnesty, but are other countries required to honor that amnesty? Could Spain try Pinochet for his actions in Chile? "

Pear also points out that "Spain's contention that it has the authority to interrogate and try Pinochet is similar to the United States' argument that it can try hijackers and terrorists for crimes committed against American citizens abroad."

LIBERATION: Too many state criminals have escaped justice

Two French-language newspapers also comment on Pinochet's arrest today. In a signed editorial in the left-of-center French daily Liberation, foreign editor Jacques Almaric writes: "Too many state crimes have escaped or will escape trial for us not to express satisfaction at (Pinochet's arrest). That a dictator covered in blood and still claiming today that his crimes were necessary is now a prisoner in London is only just...."

Almaric's editorial continues: "That said, let's not dream or take our wishes for reality: The dictator will not appear before a Spanish court in the near future...There will be a lengthy political and judicial marathon (in Spain) with the last word on the case coming from the country's interior minister."

The editorial also warns against a Spanish court seeking to try Pinochet for genocide. "Whatever disgust he inspires in us," Almaric says, "Pinochet cannot seriously be accused of genocide. And it's likely," he concludes, "that the Chilean authorities, who will now have to deal with serious internal turbulence, will hardly be cooperative in helping to establish Pinochet's judicial responsibility."

TRIBUNE DE GENEVE: Pinochet was cut from the Franco model

In Switzerland's Tribune de Geneve, a signed editorial by Antoine Maurice is titled "History Catches Up with Chile." He writes: "The arrest of Augusto Pinochet in London reminds us of another time... when dictators blossomed and despots --from Pinochet to Jaruzelski, passing through Argentina's Videla, Haiti's Baby Doc and Bulgaria's Zhivkov-- wore black sunglasses (as their distinguishing marks)."

Maurice continues: "Pinochet was cut from the Franco model, that of dictators who peacefully leave the scene and allow others to take over. How extraordinary it is that the demand for his arrest came from Spain, a European country that has deliberately ignored its past in the name of the future and of national reconciliation."

He concludes: "In Chile, as in Spain, the transition (from dictatorship to democracy) was one of forgetting and of amnesty....Now, at the end of the millennium, history is catching up with such nations...and demanding its due."