London, 18 December 1998 RFE/RL) -- Britain's House of Lords, the most senior court in the land, has created a sensation by overturning its earlier ruling that former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet is not immune from prosecution for alleged crimes against humanity.
Yesterday's decision gives the 83-year-old Pinochet a fresh chance to escape international attempts to put him on trial for genocide and other crimes allegedly committed during his 17-year rule of the Latin American country.
Pinochet was arrested two months ago at a London hospital where he was undergoing minor surgery on his back. Spanish authorities want to extradite him to Madrid to stand trial in connection with the murder and disappearance of at least 3,000 people in Chile, many of them Spanish citizens. Pinochet denies all the allegations against him.
Three weeks ago, five British judges --the so-called "law lords"-- ruled by a margin of three to two that Pinochet had no immunity from prosecution as a former head of state. That seemed to clear the way for his extradition.
But five other judges have now overturned the ruling. They upheld a complaint from Pinochet that one of the original judges, Lord Hoffman, may have been biased because he failed to disclose his links with Amnesty International, the human-rights movement that has long sought Pinochet's arrest.
After a two-day hearing, the five judges ruled unanimously that Hoffman should be disqualified from his role in the Pinochet hearing because he failed to disclose that he had been a director of a charitable arm of Amnesty International. The judge also failed to reveal that his wife had worked for the organization for almost 20 years.
The finding against Hoffman was announced by Britain's most senior judge, Lord Browne-Wilkinson:
"I am satisfied that the earlier decision of this house cannot stand, and must be set aside."
The panel of judges ordered a second hearing in mid-January to decide whether Pinochet, as a former head of state, does or does not enjoy immunity from prosecution. Legal observers close to the case think the new panel of five law lords may be more sympathetic to Pinochet's case.
The ruling was welcomed by Pinochet, who is now under house arrest at a mansion outside London. He was said to be "extremely happy."
The case is a severe embarrassment for Britain's legal establishment. No judgment of the House of Lords has ever before been challenged, let alone set aside, on the ground of judicial bias. The affair is doubly embarrassing because the original decision clearing the way for Pinochet's extradition had been hailed as an historic breakthrough around the world, with implications for dictators and others everywhere who abuse human rights.
The legal muddle was strongly criticized by Norman Fowler, a minister in the former Conservative government that supported Pinochet:
"I think we have seen one blunder after another being committed, and I do not think that anyone can remotely take any pride in what has taken place." Spanish authorities are still trying to extradite Pinochet from Britain to face charges of torture, hostage-taking and conspiracy to murder. The Spanish and British moves against Pinochet have been strongly condemned by the Santiago Government, which says they violate Chile's sovereignty.
The British Home Office says the formal procedures to extradite Pinochet will continue following the decision of Home Secretary Jack Straw to approve the Spanish extradition application. But the British Government accepts that, if the second hearing of top judges next month decides Pinochet is entitled to claim immunity, the procedures will collapse. The General would then be free to go home to Chile.