Britain Arrests Pinochet to Face Charges by Spain

18 Octubre 1998

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile as a despot for 17 years, has been arrested in London after Spain asked that he be extradited for the presumed murders of hundreds of Chilean and Spanish citizens.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile as a despot for 17 years, has been arrested in London after Spain asked that he be extradited for the presumed murders of hundreds of Chilean and Spanish citizens, the British authorities announced Saturday. The Chilean government immediately demanded his release, arguing that he has diplomatic immunity since he sits in the Chilean Senate. But so far the British and Spanish authorities have shrugged off the protests, setting up what promises to be a legal struggle that could have wide implications for the prosecution of alleged human rights violators under international law.

Pinochet, who is 82 and who stepped down as commander in chief of the Chilean military five months ago, was arrested by the British police on Friday night, little more than a week after he arrived in London for surgery on a herniated disc. The warrant said the general was wanted for questioning for 'crimes of genocide and terrorism that includes murder.' British authorities refused to say where Pinochet is being held nor did they set a date for when he would be questioned. Ever since he led a violent coup to overthrow Salvador Allende Gossens, the elected Socialist president in 1973, Pinochet has been a political icon throughout Latin America, representing the excesses of a long period of military rule and US support for right-wing strongmen who opposed Communism. An estimated 3,000 Chileans were shot in the streets or 'disappeared' during his rule, and a senior member of his regime was imprisoned under US pressure for the murder of former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington in 1976.

Pinochet cast a long and wide shadow in economic affairs as well, launching a privatized social security system and other free market policies that set examples that are still models from Argentina to Mexico. Under a Constitution that he guided to enactment, Pinochet was able to become a senator for life upon his retirement from the military, a position that afforded him continued political influence and immunity from prosecution. Relatives of disappeared people and political opponents have filed several lawsuits in Chile seeking to take away his immunity, but they are given little chance of success. To this day, Chileans are deeply divided in their opinion of the Pinochet legacy, with approximately a third of the country viewing him as a hero, another third viewing him as a villain and the rest voicing ambiguous opinions to pollsters.

A senior Spanish judicial official said Saturday that Judge Baltasar Garzón issued the international arrest warrant against Pinochet on Friday after Interpol warned that the former dictator was about to be released from the hospital and would probably leave London. A British Foreign Office spokesman, who declined to be identified by name, said the general's arrest was 'a judicial matter, one for the police and the magistrates.' But he said 'one point that does fall to us, he does not have diplomatic immunity in this country.' The spokesman declined any further comment. An official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Pinochet had been arrested 'at the direct, specific request of the Spanish authorities.' Spanish lawyers said the request for Pinochet's extradition had been sent to Scotland Yard through Interpol. The request was based on the European Convention on Terrorism, which requires members to help one another in matters related to terrorism.

The initial warrant is based on a single case of the kidnapping and disappearance in 1976 of a Chilean leftist leader, Edgaro Henriquez, 35. The Spanish judicial official said that Garzón is planning on Monday to send to British authorities the names of 78 other people of various nationalities who were also kidnapped in Chile and taken to Argentina where they disappeared between 1976 and 1983. He will also seek the general's extradition to Spain. Garzón has also demanded the extradition of various former Argentina junta rulers, but Argentina has refused to abide by warrants. The focus of his investigation is the so-called Condor Plan, in which the military juntas of various Latin American countries allegedly collaborated to eliminate their enemies. Both President Eduardo Frei of Chile and President Eduardo Menem of Argentina have resisted the Spanish legal motions, arguing that they infringe on their nations' sovereignty.

Amnesty International, the human rights group long critical of Pinochet, earlier this week urged the British government to assist the Spanish judges in their prosecution of the former dictator. In a statement, the group said, 'This would be a clear manifestation of the British government's commitment to human rights.' Human rights and international law experts expressed enthusiastic support Saturday for the British arrest, and said it could have wide implications. Legal experts noted that since the Nuremberg trials after World War II, all countries theoretically have been obliged to take responsibility for crimes against humanity, thereby denying safe haven to promoters of international crimes like genocide. However, suspected war criminals, once granted amnesties in their own countries, have usually been safe from prosecution when they traveled abroad. Juan Garces, a Spanish lawyer representing 4,000 victims of the Pinochet regime, said the case against the general was based on international legal principles that there is no immunity for those responsible for crimes against humanity, even if they served as heads of state. Diane Orentlicher, a law professor and director of the War Crimes Research Office at American University in Washington, said the British and Spanish actions put 'teeth into the legal principle' that abusers of human rights are international criminals. 'The central point of all of this is that crimes against humanity transcend the concerns of the countries where the abuses are committed', she said. 'In theory, there should be no safe haven for world class criminals, but the central problem has been the enforcement of the law depends on the mobilization of the world's consciousness'.

Chile said on Saturday that it would file a formal protest. 'What we must do is make clear that Mr. Pinochet is a senator who travels with a diplomatic passport,' said Mario Artaza, Chile's ambassador to London, in a radio interview Saturday. Artaza added that Pinochet would not be able testify any time soon because he was recuperating from painful surgery. Chilean officials who served in the Pinochet government have so far been left virtually untouched for their alleged crimes because the armed forces still command broad political influence. In neighboring Argentina, several military officials served prison sentences in the 1980s, but they were released under amnesty laws enacted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, retired Gen. Jorge Videla, who led one of the Argentine juntas that ruled while Pinochet was in power in Chile, is currently under house arrest as a judge investigates his alleged role in kidnapping newborn children of political prisoners so they might be adopted by military families.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times