Dictatorships and Double Standards

30 October 1998

Since former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet was put under house arrest in London, the US administration has acted as if it had no conceivable interest in the ex-dictator's fate.

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Interpress Service

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

In June last year, the US State Department approached the government of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien with a plan to seize former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and have him extradited to Canada to stand trial on war crimes and crimes against humanity. The administration of President Bill Clinton was willing to use US aircraft and military forces to help capture the notorious Khmer Rouge leader and spirit him out of Cambodia, published reports said. Once in Canada, according to the plan, he could either be tried under that country's criminal code or held until an international tribunal is convened by the UN Security Council to try him for genocide. 'We will be seeking to make sure that there is international justice carried out against this major war criminal,' vowed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a nationally broadcast television programme at the time.

For the past two weeks, however, Albright and other senior US officials have been silent about bringing to justice another notorious former foreign leader accused of grave abuses of human rights; including torture, murder, and disappearances. Since former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet was put under house arrest Oct 16 while recovering from medical treatment at a London clinic, the administration has acted as if the United States had no conceivable interest in the ex-dictator's fate. 'It's been 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,' muttered one disgusted State Department official who asked not to be identified. Indeed, for the 12 days which preceded Wednesday's decision by the British High Court to declare invalid a Spanish extradition request against Pinochet, US spokesmen, when asked about the case, invariably replied it was strictly 'a legal matter between Spain, the United Kingdom and Chile'.

The British court found that Pinochet enjoyed complete sovereign immunity for acts performed as Chile's head of state - a judgement which is now under appeal to the House of Lords. State Department spokesman James Rubin said: 'It would be inappropriate for me to comment on this judicial decision.' This attitude, however, has angered human rights groups in Washington. 'There is a high level of frustration here', according to Curt Goering, Deputy Director of the US section of Amnesty International, who said it was especially important that Washington assert its interest now. 'They should press the case with the House of Lords, especially by providing evidence they have regarding crimes committed under Pinochet.'

'It is incomprehensible the US government is totally silent,' says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), 'especially now when a British tribunal is claiming that Pinochet, as a head of state, is exonerated from any responsibility for his role in terrible abuses of human rights.'

Washington has insisted that it is cooperating fully with the Spanish judges who filed the extradition request with Britain by providing them with documents about the Pinochet regime's involvement in human rights abuses in and outside Chile. But human rights groups and some Democratic lawmakers say that the administration has thus far provided only publicly released documents, such as court records of the 1976 car-bomb assassination here by Chilean agents of Orlando Letelier and his research assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Classified documents, which purportedly depict in considerable detail Chile's leadership role in Operation Condor - a scheme by the military governments of Latin America's Southern Cone - to dispose of each other's dissidents through disappearances, as well as Pinochet's control over Chile's secret police throughout his dictatorship, have so far not been passed on. Rights advocates say Washington's failure to provide such information is critical. 'Evidence is key to everything in criminal proceedings,' says Stefanie Grant of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) in New York. 'Unless there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, there can't be a conviction,' she says. 'My sense is that in the Letelier- Moffitt case, there is solid evidence (against Pinochet). If it exists, it should be made available to whoever can make good use of it.' That is also the position of the lawyers who represent the families of both Letelier and Moffitt. They asked for meetings with Attorney-General Janet Reno and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last Friday, but have yet to receive a reply. They want the administration to go further - by seeking the indictment and extradition of Pinochet for murder in the Letelier-Moffitt killings. 'This was an act of terror committed on US soil,' notes Steven Rickert, director of Amnesty's Washington office.

On the basis of overwhelming evidence, the Justice Department in 1978 won criminal convictions and prison sentences in US federal court against Chilean agent Michael Townley, a Chilean army captain, and two Cuban exiles hired by DINA, Pinochet's secret police. Two Chilean generals, including DINA director Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, who reported directly to Pinochet, were later imprisoned in Chile for their roles in the killings. Pinochet himself was not indicted here for the killings, apparently because he was assumed to enjoy sovereign immunity as Chile's acting head of state. And in Chile he decreed his own amnesty.

Rights activists and lawyers here now argue that much has changed since 1978. The increasing number of countries which assert universal jurisdiction over certain kinds of egregrious rights abuses, such as torture, war crimes, and genocide is one of those changes. In 1994, the US Congress approved a law signed by Clinton that gave US federal criminal courts jurisdiction to prosecute foreign nationals, including heads of state, for acts of torture committed outside the United States. And the Clinton administration's own frequent assertions that foreign leaders guilty of serious human rights abuses should be held accountable for their crimes in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and, of course, Cambodia, naturally have added to expectations that Washington might have something to say about the Pinochet case.

Copyright 1998 InterPress Service