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Western Press Review: The Pinochet Precedent

Prague, 3 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's release of General Augusto Pinochet -- the former Chilean dictator who spent 17 months under house arrest in England -- caught the attention of many Western columnists today. Many argue that even if Pinochet has avoided prosecution in Europe, the precedent his arrest has set represents a victory for human rights.

WASHINGTON POST: Pinochet's release has set a new precedent in international law

In the Washington Post, commentator Anthony Faiola writes that -- even though British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw ruled that Pinochet was medically unfit to stand trial for atrocities committed during his 17-year-rule in Chile -- his release has set a new precedent in international law. Faiola says that the dictator's year-and-a half detention will no doubt "strike new fear into the hearts of abusive rulers and former rulers around the world." He writes:

"Already, the Pinochet case has had international repercussions. Current and former officials from Yugoslavia, Africa and South America reportedly have re-thought travel plans, fearing the 'Pinochet effect.'"

Faiola also says that Straw's decision to release Pinochet after medical findings said he was mentally unfit to stand trial abroad has angered human rights groups and authorities in other nations. They believe that Straw was too quick to dismiss the case and did not give time for appeals.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Proceedings in Britain have "breathed legal life" into several international conventions

In Britain's Financial Times, columnist Philip Stephens says that on the surface the big losers in the Pinochet saga are the victims of his crimes. He writes: "To the relatives of the disappeared -- the men and women battered and tortured before being consigned by the Pinochet regime to still-secret graves -- justice has been elbowed aside by political expediency."

But, says Stephens, much good has come of the Pinochet saga. He argues that even though Pinochet will most likely never stand trial in Chile or elsewhere, he has been exposed: "He is a pariah. He will not dare to again venture beyond his own country's borders. Mr. Pinochet craved respectability in his old age. The ghastly descriptions of his regime heard in the British courts -- of opponents routinely mutilated and tortured in the vilest manner imaginable -- have torn off that thin veneer."

Most important, writes Stephens, Pinochet's court proceedings in Britain have "breathed legal life" into several international conventions that assert the primacy of certain basic human rights over claims of state sovereignty. He says this: "We should not allow the obvious imperfections of the system to obscure the advance that the Pinochet case has brought. Those who once enjoyed the spoils of their tyranny with impunity will henceforth look over their shoulders each time they venture into the civilized world. Mr. Pinochet is free again. But he lives now in the prison of his past."

GUARDIAN: Pinochet has served only one noble purpose in his life

In the British daily Guardian, author Geoffrey Robertson says that Pinochet has served only one noble purpose in his life -- that of helping the world work out how to put tyrants on trial. He writes: "A few hours after one mass-murdering general touches down to safety in Chile, another will be in handcuffs in the dock in the Hague to hear an international country pass judgement on his crimes. In Senegal, the former dictator of Chad stands charged with torture on the Pinochet precedent, while pressure builds for international prosecutions of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders and generals responsible for East Timor massacres."

Robertson also says that because of the Pinochet precedent, political criminals will no longer have immunity to charges of genocide and torture. He adds that the lesson of his release should be renewed pressure to round up other perpetrators of genocide and torture while they remain healthy.

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: International law was hardly advanced by Pinochet's arrest The Wall Street Journal Europe asks what was the point of detaining Pinochet in the first place. The paper's editorial says that international law was hardly advanced by Pinochet's arrest. It writes that he was first arrested by an invalid warrant prepared by a "politically ambitious Spanish prosecutor." The editorial also notes says that Pinochet was detained according to the discretion of Home Secretary Jack Straw. Above all, writes the paper, the saga won't further international justice:

"To claim that Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and other dictators are less likely to brutalize their own people because of Mr. Pinochet's arrest beggars belief. What is certain is that they are less likely to follow Mr. Pinochet's example of stepping aside or allowing democratic forces to flourish."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: What business was it of Europe's to ignore the wishes of the 75 percent of Chileans

A commentary in the Wall Street Journal Europe written by Norman Lamont also adopts is critical of Pinochet's detention. Lamont, who was Britain's chancellor of the exchequer (that is, finance minister) from 1990 to 1993, says that the entire 17-month ordeal did not even resolve its most basic question -- whether a Spanish court had any competence to try a Chilean former president for alleged crimes in Chile against Chileans and foreign residents.

Lamont says that allowing a junior judge to try a former head of state is not the route to a new world order, but rather to judicial chaos and international friction. He writes: "Amnesties, negotiations with terrorists, wiping the slate clean -- all are part of finding solutions to both international and domestic problems .... If the full force of international law were consistently applied, there would be no peace process in the Middle East or in South Africa and reconciliation in post-Franco Spain. But now international law is becoming an obstacle to reconciliation and conflict resolution. Too many questions that should resolved by politicians are being decided by lawyers."

Lamont adds that it is the European Union whose reputation has been most stained by the Pinochet affair. He says that the actions of EU members Spain and Britain amount to "judicial colonialism." He then asks:

"What business was it of Europe's to ignore the wishes of the 75 percent of Chileans who said they did not want their former president tried in Europe? If General Pinochet had to be put on trial, it could only have been in his own country."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: The legal procedures used by the English courts against Pinochet have not been totally in vain

In Denmark, the daily Berlingske Tidende says in an editorial that it is regrettable Pinochet is not to be tried for the many instances of torture and murder he allegedly had ordered, but that the protracted legal procedures used by the English courts against him have not been totally in vain. The paper writes:

"First and foremost, the House of Lords in London created a ground-breaking precedent that former heads of state cannot rely on diplomatic immunity abroad for crimes they have committed while in office. It has been decided that persons who have committed crimes such as torture may be prosecuted all over the world without statutory limitations. This decision has already affected a number of former dictators who have now become prisoners in their own countries."

The editorial also says that there was no way to avoid the final British decision. It says that medical exams revealed that Pinochet suffered from at least a dozen serious diseases, senility and partial amnesia among them. It concludes that a society based on law cannot prosecute anyone who would not understand what was going on in court.

AFTENPOSTEN: The crimes committed by Pinochet will now never be forgotten

In Norway, the daily Aftenposten's editorial says: "The principle that a mentally unfit person cannot be prosecuted, which the British hold so dear, spelt the end of 84-year-old Augusto Pinochet's troubles abroad. If one is to believe Jack Straw and the doctors, as one should, Pinochet could not be seen in court either in Spain, or in France, or in Chile. That fundamental legal principle must be upheld."

Overall, says the paper, the crimes committed by Pinochet will now never be forgotten: "They have been well-documented and much talked-about, not least during the general's long house arrest in Britain. The opponents of Pinochet in Chile have capitalized on that. They think that Pinochet does not return home as an innocent man but as someone who has been indicted by the whole world."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)