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Western Press Review: The Pinochet Case

  • Don Hill



Prague, 10 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A decision by Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw to let the extradition case of Chile's General Augusto Pinochet go to the British courts has brought widespread commentary in the British press. U.S. and German commentary also examines issues that the Pinochet case raises.

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Augusto Pinochet's legal troubles are just beginning

A brief analysis from London by Robert Frank in The Wall Street Journal Europe opens succinctly: "Augusto Pinochet's legal troubles are just beginning." Franks says that a legal battle is starting "that is likely to drag on for months or even years."

He writes: "An arrest that began with so much global fanfare and political controversy already is settling into a banal legal case fought in small courtrooms in Britain and Spain, and drifting out of the hands of politicians."

NEW YORK TIMES: The decision by Home Secretary Jack Straw constitutes a significant step

Warren Hoge, reporting for The New York Times from London, also writes in a news analysis that the path looks long and torturous for the Pinochet case. Hoge says: "While any extradition remains a long time and many legal twists and turns away, the decision (yesterday) was a significant step that brought exuberant cheers from the general's enemies and angry denunciations from his backers." Hoge continues: "The decision, coming two days before (tomorrow's) deadline, dashed the hopes of Pinochet's supporters and the Chilean government that Straw would put an end to the extraordinary case and let him return to Chile."

The writer says: "British law is generous in allowing appeals of the periodic steps in a lengthy process like extradition, and the Pinochet case could work its way back up to the House of Lords for future judgments."

WASHINGTON POST: The United States must actively oppose this brave new world of global justice

Jesse Helms is a prominent conservative Republican senator from the U.S. Southern state of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He writes in a commentary published by The Washington Post that the Straw decision sets a precedent that endangers international comity. "In July, during the Rome Conference to establish an International Criminal Court," Helms writes, "I warned that such a court would be arbitrary and contemptuous of national judicial processes and would trample the sovereignty of democratic nations."

Helms goes on: "Today a rogue Spanish judge is using international law to trample Chilean sovereignty and overrule Chile's functioning judiciary, its democratically elected government and the decision of its people to choose national reconciliation over revenge. And the advocates of the International Criminal Court are cheering him along."

The senator says that Pinochet's contributions to Chilean stability and defeat of communism need to be considered along with his human rights transgressions. Helms writes: "Much has been said of human rights abuses during the Pinochet era. I do not condone abuses by anyone. But the majority of Chileans will tell you that the 1973 coup d'etat led by Pinochet rescued their country from ruinous anarchy."

Helms says that if Pinochet is liable, why not former Russia President Mikhail Gorbachev for Afghanistan and the Baltics? Or China's Jiang Zemin for Tiananmen Square? Or Yasser Arafat for terrorism? The senator writes: "The point is this: Who decides who stands trial and who goes free in this brave new world of global justice?" He concludes: "This is the world crusaders for an International Criminal Court are unwittingly creating. The United States must actively oppose it."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Pinochet is charged with crimes of universal jurisdiction

But another commentator, George Black of the New York City-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, says in a commentary published by the Los Angeles Times that fair grounds exist in established international law for the extradition and trial of Pinochet.

Black writes: "Pinochet is charged with torture, committed on such a widespread and systematic basis that it constitutes a crime against humanity -- a crime under both domestic and international law and a crime of universal jurisdiction. States therefore have not only an interest in seeing the crime investigated and punished -- they have a legal obligation to ensure that this happens. That obligation became binding on Britain in 1988, when it ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture. This treaty is not yet as widely known as it should be, but it has an enormous potential role to play in the future enforcement of international human rights law."

WASHINGTON POST: If Pinochet's predicament prevents torture of political prisoners, his hour of fear has served justice

Well-known American conservative columnist George Will considers sympathetically in The Washington Post most of Senator Helms' arguments but rebuts the senator's conclusion. Will writes: "The Spanish judge who yesterday made progress in persuading Britain to extradite (Pinochet) is practicing what is called justice without borders. But borders are akin to fences, and good fences make good neighbors. If what is called international law -- it is international, but is it law? -- ignores fences, will nations be more neighborly?"

Will responds to his own question: "Prosecuting Pinochet might expand the rule of law; it certainly would involve ideological willfulness tarted up in the trappings of law. Pinochet was a nasty ruler who mandated torture, hostage-taking and murder -- probably including murder on Embassy Row in Washington. But he was, on balance, good for Chile, which emerged from his despotism as a prosperous democracy."

Will's conclusion: "Some conservatives reasonably argue that prosecuting Pinochet might deter other dictators from surrendering power. However, those conservatives are conceding a deterrent effect: Such prosecutions might stay torturers' hands. If the peril in which Pinochet finds himself prevents (torture) of political prisoners, Pinochet's hour of fear has served justice."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Pinochet should have taken the honorable step of offering himself up for trial

In the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a commentary by Stefan Ulrich applauds the Straw decision. Ulrich writes: "Jack Straw has stayed true to the tough line he has adopted since becoming Britain's home secretary. This time he has shown toughness towards an 83-year-old man suffering from back problems and homesickness. He is right to have done so."

Ulrich says: "Following the complex British extradition law, the proceedings could take months, if not years. In the end the ex-dictator might indeed be so frail that he would have to be released." The German commentator says that Pinochet, himself, should have taken the honorable step of offering himself up for trial. The writer concludes: "Only the general himself can stop this procedure by showing a soldierly virtue -- courage. Instead of taking cover behind his age, alleged immunity or a Chilean amnesty, he could give himself up to the Spanish judges and defend himself like a man. But nobody believes any longer that Augusto Pinochet will have that much backbone."



In London, three prominent newspapers take editorially opposed stands on the case. The Daily Telegraph calls the Straw decision "Politics, Not Justice." The Guardian regards it as "A Win for Human Rights." And The Times worries that the case will become continually more controversial as it winds through Britain's courts. Following are excerpts:

DAILY TELEGRAPH: The whole thing is a ghastly mess

The Daily Telegraph : "Far from strengthening or clarifying international law, (the case) could easily open up an international free-for-all, in which all sorts of judges and governments will feel able to apply for the arrest of a wide range of former leaders to whom they may have taken a dislike. The whole thing is a ghastly mess and one which Mr. Straw should have done everything he possibly could to avoid, while he still had the chance."

GUARDIAN: Jack Straw has taken a just and moral decision

The Guardian: "After a prolonged and unnecessary delay, Jack Straw has taken the only decision on the Pinochet case which combines justice with moral vision."

TIMES: Mr. Straw anticipate the wider legal, diplomatic and political context of his decision

The Times: "At the end of all this the matter may, and in all probability will, once again come across the desk of the home secretary. At this final stage he would, as he may have calculated, have wider formal authority with which to allow Chile, not Spain, to determine the general's fate. This remains the best of several unattractive solutions to this conundrum. Mr. Straw cannot know if or when he will be obliged to revisit this issue. Nor can he anticipate the wider legal, diplomatic and political context in which such a decision would be framed. He may come to regret this uncertainty."



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