Prague, 26 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Britain's highest court ruled yesterday that former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, arrested six weeks ago in London, is not immune from prosecution on charges of murder and other crimes during his 17-year rule. The three-to-two decision by judges of Britain's House of Lords reversed a lower court ruling late last month, and opened the way for possible extradition of Pinochet to Spain. The Lords' landmark ruling has also triggered a flood of commentary in the Western press.
FINANCIAL TIMES: Pinochet should be sent to Chile for trial
In Britain itself, the Financial Times writes today: "Pinochet is a bad man. He deserves to be tried for the torture and murders committed by his henchmen while he was dictator...This is a moral principle with which most people can agree. But as a divided judgment (by the Lords) showed yesterday, the relationship between international law and national jurisdictions is not that simple."
The FT continues: "The tide of world opinion has been moving steadily toward the view that some crimes are so heinous that they must be subject to laws and conventions that reach beyond national boundaries. But the means for realizing such aspirations remain patchy and imprecise."
The editorial concludes: "The right place to try Gen. Pinochet is in Chile....This year, 11 criminal suits have been brought against him. (The British Government) should send him back to face the music."
DAILY TELEGRAPH: Pinochet has been treated unfairly
Under the title "General mayhem," the conservative Daily Telegraph's editorial says that the Lords' decision "has thrown the law of sovereign immunity into disarray." The paper points out that "all five judges agreed that if General Pinochet were still head of state, his claim to immunity would have been upheld....Where yesterday's judgment broke new ground," the paper goes on, "was in holding that, as a former head of state he can claim immunity under British...law only for those actions he 'properly' undertook or authorized during his (rule)."
The editorial argues that Pinochet "has been treated unfairly, incompetently and in breach of the laws of hospitality by Britain. It says further: "How to deal with (the serious allegations against Pinochet) must surely be a matter for Chile, an old and valued British ally, rather than Spain."
The DT sums up: "If there ever was a case where political discretion is not only justified by required, this is it. General Pinochet should be sent home for Christmas."
NEW YORK TIMES: Straw should let British justice take its course
The New York Times says that "the (final) decision will rest in the hands of Home Secretary, Jack Straw. Unless Pinochet's health worsens drastically, Straw must resist the temptation to decide that he is too frail to stand trial."
Yesterday's ruling, the paper adds, "settles the most important legal issue involved in Spain's extradition request. Britain almost always complies with requests from European nations and requires little examination of the factual evidence of the case."
The editorial concludes: "Straw must not heed the false argument that trying Pinochet would imperil Chile's democracy. His extremist supporters are noisy but few. Chile's military and business leaders know that the economic growth and respect they enjoy would vanish if democracy fell. Straw should let British justice, and then possibly Spanish justice, take its course."
WALL STREET JOURNAL: This is a recipe for anarchy and arbitrariness, not justice
The Wall Street Journal Europe expresses an entirely different view. Under the heading, "Betrayed in Britain," the paper writes: "Self-proclaimed 'human rights' activists are hailing (the decision) as a victory for the rule of law and reason. In fact, Mr. Pinochet's 'crime' was saving his country from a Communist takeover orchestrated by (Cuban leader) Fidel Castro."
The paper says further: "Most of (Pinochet's) victims, reliably estimated at something under 3,000, were Communist insurgents. Had he really acted with the brutality that is all-too-familiar in the 20th century, the death toll would have been far higher."
The WSJ adds: "What the...Lords endorsed was not a rule of law, but political retaliation against a national leader who had handed the international Left a major defeat. They decided, in effect, that the law is whatever political activists want it to be if they are prepared to raise enough hell. This is a recipe for anarchy and arbitrariness, not justice."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Capital crimes are liable to prosecution world-wide
Stefan Ulrich in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung says that "The Lords' verdict makes belated amends to the victims of Pinochet's rule, amends which were denied them in their homeland. Moreover," he writes in a commentary, "it is an important step towards the world-wide outlawing and prosecution of the most heinous political criminals."
Ulrich continues: "(The decision also) confirms the development of international criminal law toward a position where the immunity normally enjoyed by former heads of state does not apply in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Certainly, under international law, ex-presidents are exempt from criminal prosecution for anything done in the course of their official duties. But," he asks, "who would claim that murder and killings, torture and causing people to 'disappear' are legitimate acts of state?"
He continues: "At present, two Chileans in three want their ex-dictator to stand trial....The amnesty (granted Pinochet in Chile) was not freely negotiated; it was forced on them by the regime. All the same, Pinochet was able to feel safe at home --he was protected by the powerful army. (But) the capital crimes which Pinochet is accused of are liable to prosecution world-wide as crimes against humanity."
IRISH TIMES: It is up to Chile to judge its own past
The Irish Times today writes that "anyone who believes that human rights are universal and indivisible will instinctively welcome the...Lords' ruling, and share a little of the satisfaction of the General's surviving victims and their families and friends."
The paper goes on to say: "(Under Pinochet,) there were countless arbitrary arrests, followed by summary executions, and 'disappearances.' The vilest forms of torture were routinely practiced by Gen. Pinochet's secret police. Furthermore, they extended their reign of terror far beyond Chile's borders, a point which forms an important part of the Spanish legal argument for his extradition."
The IT adds: "The healthy instinct to see that such crimes do not go unpunished must be qualified with caution, however. There are weighty arguments against a rush to justice. The first is that every legitimate legal defense must be afforded to the general....The second is that it is up to Chile to judge its own past."
WASHINGTON POST: This has been a bad year for tyrants
The Washington Post today carries a commentary by Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of the international organization Human Rights Watch. He writes: "This has been a bad year for tyrants. War crimes courts for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia are up and running. A treaty establishing a permanent international criminal court won overwhelming support this summer. Now (Pinochet) has found his self-conferred amnesty extends no farther than the reach of his army's guns."
Roth goes on: "Any world-class human rights criminal surveying the scene would conclude that his prospects are dimming. Symbols of this new legal order include Col. Theoneste Bagosora, the mastermind of the Rwandan genocide, who fled to Cameroon only to be arrested...and Abdullah Ocalan, the murderous Kurdish rebel leader, who has had to flee from Syria to Russia to Italy..."
The commentary adds: "Some fear that Pinochet-like prosecutions will upset democratic transitions or force dictators to cling to power rather than risk prosecution. But Pinochet's arrest has not disturbed Chilean democracy. Indeed, the elected president felt democracy was so secure that he left the country at the height of the drama for a nine-day trade mission."
LIBERATION: Don't celebrate the victory too soon -- it could turn into a defeat
In a signed editorial in the French Left-of-Center daily Liberation, Jacques Amalric urges "caution" over the Lords' verdict on Pinochet. He writes: "The decision is certainly important because its constitutes an undeniable advance in the ongoing process of globalizing criminal justice. But it is clear," he adds, "that it won't give too many headaches to practicing dictators --at least to those who are not keenly looking forward to a peaceful retirement."
Amalric goes on: "The day is still far away when practicing dictators will be dissuaded by international law from pursuing their criminal activities by the threat of finding themselves before a competent court during a voyage abroad." He notes that the establishment of a permanent international criminal court, agreed upon in Rome in July, will take at least five years to realize.
Even then, his editorial says, the competence of the new international court will be limited by "restrictions favorable to criminal leaders who some countries will want to protect." Amalric concludes: "Don't celebrate the victory too soon --it could turn into a defeat."