Human rights advocates condemned Britain's decision to spare former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet from standing trial. But the latest ruling, however disappointing to Pinochet's prosecutors, does not override the precedents already set by his case. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan talks to Peter Kornbluh, from the National Security Archive in Washington, about the case's repercussions for international human rights.
New York, 14 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Four British specialists who examined the 84-year-old former Chilean dictator all came to the same conclusion -- General Pinochet was unfit to stand trial. Britain's home secretary, Jack Straw, announced on Tuesday that he accepted the medical opinion, a decision that could pave the way for Pinochet's eventual return to Chile.
The former dictator has been under house arrest for almost 15 months in Britain, awaiting the resolution of a Spanish judge's extradition request. Pinochet is scheduled to stand trial in Spain on 35 criminal counts of torture and conspiracy to torture during his rule in Chile, during which thousands disappeared and are presumed dead. It is unlikely now that Pinochet will ever face his accusers.
Shaw's decision, while a clear victory for the Pinochet camp, did not rest easily with many international observers who have been following the case. Peter Kornbluh, an expert on the Pinochet case who is writing a book called "The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier of Atrocity and Accountability," spoke to RFE/RL in a telephone interview about what he calls a deeply troubling turn of events.
Kornbluh takes issue with Straw's decision for two reasons. First, the secrecy surrounding the decision -- Pinochet's medical file was not released -- made it impossible for human rights advocates to independently verify the doctors' findings. And second, he said the timing of the decision -- just five days before elections in Chile -- unfairly inserted Britain into Chile's political process.
Physical infirmity, says Kornbluh, should not be enough to let Pinochet off the hook.
"The standard for being unfit for trial is usually mental incompetence. The idea that Augusto Pinochet is mentally incompetent to participate in his trial, I think, strikes all observers as false."
Kornbluh said a number of former Nazi war criminals older and more infirm than Pinochet, including the notorious Klaus Barber, have already been extradited and tried.
The recent decision, however disappointing to human rights advocates, does not dilute the case's overall international impact. The Pinochet case helped establish the principle of "universal jurisdiction," said Human Rights Watch, a non-government monitoring organization. It said this means that serious human rights crimes can be prosecuted anywhere in the world.
Human rights experts say dictators now have to think twice before leaving their home countries. Pinochet, who relinquished his power as Chile's leader in 1990, traveled to Britain for back surgery. On October 16, 1998, British authorities placed Pinochet under house arrest -- the first time ever that a former head of state has faced charges prosecuted by other countries for alleged crimes committed inside his home country.
The Pinochet case, said Kornbluh, has given rise to a new verb in the lexicon of human rights work: "to be Pinocheted." Current and former dictators now need to be concerned that if they leave the sanctuary of their countries, other nations have universal jurisdiction to prosecute them for crimes against humanity.
"Pinochet will always be remembered as an individual synonymous with violations of international human rights, and as a case that established the power of international law to reach out and apply human rights standards to dictators who have violated the liberties of their citizens."
Kornbluh says the Pinochet case also gives people living under dictatorships all over the world reason to believe their suffering will ultimately be vindicated.
"All countries will eventually redress the deep scars that have been created by dictatorships such as Augusto Pinochet's. And even if it takes 20 to 25 years -- even if it takes 50 years, as is the case of ongoing attention to the crimes of Nazi Germany -- eventually some type of justice will prevail."
Despite the setback of Shaw's decision, international rights advocates say they can take some consolation. The British home secretary said he would wait seven days before making a final decision, so international observers, who were not privy to the original process, could submit their opinions.
Human rights advocates say that even if Pinochet returns to Chile and never faces prosecution for his alleged crime, his case nonetheless will live in the annals of human rights law and continue to cast a shadow over dictators throughout the world.