Pinochet: The Legacy

  • 2000-01-20
  • By Gwynne Dyer
The little secret at the heart of the Pinochet affair is that the
Chilean ex-dictator never faced any risk of doing time in jail. Even
if British Home Secretary Jack Straw disregarded the doctors' advice
and extradited him to Spain, even if the Spanish courts found him
guilty of torture and other high crimes, Augusto Pinochet would just
have been sent home in the end because Spanish law forbids the
imprisonment of people over 75 years old, and Pinochet is 84.

That is why those who hated the old murderer hoped fervently that he
had good lawyers: people who would spin out his appeals against
extradition from Britain, and then use every legal trick in the book
to drag out the trial in Spain. That way, Pinochet would at least
spend one or two more years under house arrest and under severe
psychological strain (though nothing like the daily stress felt by
the estimated 60,000-100,000 people who must live the rest of their
lives with memories of being tortured by his henchmen).

Instead, it turns out that Pinochet's only punishment will be the
sixteen months he has spent under house arrest in Britain. There is
no point in second-guessing Straw's decision that he is unfit to
stand trial, based on the "unequivocal and unanimous" conclusion of
four doctors that he would be unable to "give a coherent statement of
his own case and his recollections." But has this remarkable episode
had any lasting impact on the way the world works?

You bet your boots it has. Pinochet's arrest in Britain in October,
1998, on a warrant issued by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon, was the
first time that anybody acted on the provisions of the 1977
Convention Against Torture, which requires all the countries that
signed it to pursue accused torturers everywhere.

Pinochet's lawyers immediately claimed immunity for him on the
age-old ground that he had been head of state in Chile when the
crimes were committed. It was a rupture of centuries of tradition
when Britain's highest court, the Law Lords, ruled in November that
his arrest was legal - and then reconfirmed that ruling by a
six-to-one decision in March 1999.

The Convention Against Torture says that NOBODY is exempt from its
provisions — but until Pinochet's arrest, no court had tried to
enforce it against senior government officials, whether serving or
retired. So evil men whose power was based on their willingness to
murder and torture their fellow-citizens remained free to go anywhere
in the world for medical care, for shopping sprees, or just to laze
around in villas indulging in their favourite vices.

The first sign that the Law Lords' decision is changing all that came
last August, when Saddam Hussein's right-hand man, Izzat Ibrahim
al-Douri, arrived in Vienna for a month's R&R and some medical
treatment at the plush Doeblinger Clinic. He is one of the world's
worst killers (he led the forces that used nerve gas on thousands of
Iraqi Kurds in 1988), but he is accustomed to taking lengthy breaks
from his onerous duties at various Western spas.

Only this time an Austrian member of parliament, Peter Pilz,
discovered that he was in the country and asked the Justice
Department to arrest him on charges of genocide and torture. Someone
in the Austrian government tipped al-Douri off, and he took the next
plane back to Baghdad.

But he will not be visiting Vienna - or anywhere else with
independent courts - for the rest of his life.

Even as exalted a figure as former Indonesian president Suharto, has
decided that international travel is getting too risky from the legal
point of view. This September, for the first time in many years, he
did not make his customary trip to Germany to get medical attention
for his numerous ailments: there are people waiting there with arrest
warrants for the numerous massacres that occurred in East Timor and
elsewhere during his rule.

In December it was the turn of the 'butcher of Addis Ababa', former
Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu has been living in
exile in Zimbabwe under the protection of his old friend President
Robert Mugabe since he was overthrown in 1991, but he needed the
higher-tech medical services of South Africa's hospitals, and he
thought he had a deal with the South African government to move back
and forth freely.

Maybe he did, but in early December the South African press broke the
news that Mengistu was in a Johannesburg hospital, and within hours
an Ethiopian warrant was on its way to Pretoria demanding his arrest.

"Like Lazarus, he just took up his bed and walked," said Jeremy
Gauntlet, chairman of South Africa's General Council of the Bar. He
took the first plane back to Zimbabwe, and he will not be seen in
South Africa again.

In January it was the turn of a British man accused of systematic
torture: Colonel Ian Henderson, who spent most of the past two
decades running the secret police in the Gulf sheikhdom of Bahrein.
He was visiting Britain over the New Year's holiday when Lord
Avebury, head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, blew the
whistle on him. Henderson is now safely back in Bahrein, but he may
never see Britain again.

This is not the end of the road for torturers and murderers who
operate under the protection of the authority of the state, but it is
a far cry from the impunity with which they could swan around the
world just two years ago. Pinochet is off the hook, but something
important has been accomplished.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.