London, 26 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A surprise ruling by Britain's highest court that General Augusto Pinochet is not immune from prosecution for crimes against humanity during his 17 year dictatorship in Chile has touched off both celebrations and outrage in the capital Santiago.
Five judges of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British parliament, ruled by a margin of three to two yesterday that Pinochet has no immunity as a former head of state from extradition to Spain on charges of genocide, murder and torture.
In Santiago, the ruling was greeted with jubilation by opponents of the 83-year-old former dictator, who took to the streets to celebrate. But his shocked supporters burned a British flag and attacked a BBC television crew.
Chilean exiles -- many with relatives who are said to have "disappeared" under Pinochet's regime -- danced in the streets of European cities. One Chilean exile in London said the ruling was a "historic day for the people of Chile."
"Today, justice has been done. Today is an historic day for the people of Chile, for the people of Britain, for the people of Latin America, and for the people of the world because justice has finally been done."
The legal decision opens the way for Spain to begin extradition proceedings against Pinochet, who is accused in a warrant issued by a Spanish magistrate of being implicated in more than 3,100 killings and disappearances.
Now, it is up to British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw to decide whether to authorize the start of extradition hearings or to allow Pinochet to return to Santiago on compassionate grounds.
The ruling by Britain's so-called Law Lords was received angrily by Chile's President Eduardo Frei, who is sending Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Insulza to London to press for the former dictator's release.
Frei continues to urge Britain to uphold Pinochet's immunity as a Chilean senator, and is calling on Spain to recognize that its courts have no right to try crimes allegedly committed on Chilean soil.
The arrest of Pinochet six weeks ago in a London clinic, where he was undergoing minor back surgery, has reawakened bitter divisions in Chile, raising fears that its transition from military rule to democracy is in jeopardy.
Yesterday's decision by the five Law Lords overturned an earlier British High Court ruling that Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, enjoyed what the court called "sovereign immunity" as a former head of state.
Giving their judgment, two of the five judges voiced their support of the earlier court ruling. But the other three judges -- two of them from the former British colony of South Africa -- voted to overturn the ruling. There were gasps of surprise in the staid House of Lords when the last of the five judges, Lord Hoffman, delivered his clinching verdict:
"Senator Pinochet does not have immunity from prosecution and I, too, therefore would allow the appeal."
In effect, the judges ruled that no head of state who is accused of crimes of humanity can claim sovereign immunity from prosecution. One of the judges, Lord Nicholls, declared that no-one, not even a head of state, could get away with what he described as "certain abhorrent crimes." He said international law has made plain that certain types of conduct, including torture and hostage-taking, are not acceptable conduct on the part of anyone.
However, the Chilean ambassador to London, Mario Artaza later told a packed press conference that he hoped that Home Secretary Straw will now exercise political discretion and not allow extradition procedures to start.
"Tomorrow this embassy will present to the Home Office an official representation from the government of Chile in accordance with what is stated in the British Extradition Act."
British Conservative opposition leader William Hague took issue with the court ruling, saying it was damaging to Britain's friendly relations with Chile, and destabilizing to Chile's democracy. He said Britain should respect the people of Chile by letting Pinochet go home.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who took tea with Pinochet just before his arrest, said he should be allowed to go home on compassionate grounds and for the good of Chile-Britain relations
In Santiago, police stepped up security outside the British and Spanish embassies. In Paris, the French National Assembly broke into applause when it heard the news of the Pinochet judgment. In Madrid, the daughter of the late Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president ousted by Pinochet in 1973, welcomed the legal ruling. Isabel Allende said it demonstrated to the world "that principles do exist and that dictators cannot travel with impunity and think they are above the law."
Many commentators pointed to the ruling's international implications. They said it shows that heads of state, or other politicians, accused of crimes against humanity will not be able to travel freely in the future because of the risk of court cases -- or extradition requests -- being brought against them. In their view, yesterday's judgment set an important precedent in international law.