Pinochet and international justice, February/March 2000


escape of Pinochet, guilty of mass murder and torture. 3 March 2000

As he rises from his wheelchair and mocks Jack Straw, the medical case for his release cannot be said to have been proven. In a matter as grave as this, the onus was on the British government to publish all material and justify its decision in detail. In broad terms, the comments below remain relevant, even if the leaked material on Pinochet’s health suggests more complex problems than were known at the time of writing.

justice must be seen to be done. 15 February 2000

Speaking this time last year at an open meeting at Sussex about the Pinochet case, I concluded a generally optimistic assessment of the legal process with a remark that ‘I would never underestimate the ability of Jack Straw to do the wrong thing in a matter such as this’. This rather throwaway comment was based on a reading of the Home Secretary’s career, as well as my single encounter with the then NUS President when I, too, was a student union officer (for LSE) in 1969. My comment has proved, alas, to be all too true.

It is difficult, of course, to be certain that Jack is wrong in being ‘minded’ to bar Augusto Pinochet’s extradiction. (I will not dignify the accused with his ill-gotten title of ‘Senator’, nor with the legitimate rank of ‘General’ which he besmirched when he overthrew and murdered Salvador Allende.) That, of course, is the point: the Home Secretary has kept the crucial medical findings on Pinochet to himself. If Pinochet is senile and no longer capable of understanding the charges against him, then indeed we should accept, reluctantly, that the case should drop. There is no interest in genuinely inhumane treatment, however much Pinochet may have inflicted that upon others.

However the circumstantial evidence is suspicious, to say the least:

  • the idea of ‘medical reasons’ for not proceeding with the case reportedly dates from an approach by the Chilean government at the beginning of September 1999;
  • according to Straw, Pinochet’s deterioration dates from ‘September-October’, so that (on the face of things) the dictator lost his mind right on cue;
  • Sir John Grimley Evans, head of the medical team which examined Pinochet, first suggested that the conclusion that he was unfit to stand trial was Straw’s, but then appeared to withdraw this;
  • it is reported that Pinochet is not senile but suffers from ‘depression’ – this is not surprising; anyone found out for the appalling crimes that he committed, and facing an ignominious end to his life, would no doubt be significantly affected.

It is not clear, however, that even the most severe clinical depression is a sufficient reason to escape charges involving mass killing and torture. It would not be surprising if the serial killer, Harold Shipman, now held responsible for up to 175 deaths in one British town, was depressed once he saw that the game was up. But no one would suggest that his prosecution should be abandoned for such a reason. Pinoshipman, who was responsible for about 20 times the number of deaths, and who condemned a whole nation to terror, is hardly a less serious offender. Just as Shipman betrayed his medical profession, Pinochet betrayed the calling of soldier and the high position of commander-in-chief to which he was appointed by Allende. Pinochet’s victims as much as Shipman’s are entitled to justice. It is outrageous to think that a shabby political compromise should eclipse their claims.

As the judges in the High Court have recognised, the seriousness of the crimes outweighs any deal that Straw has done with Pinochet (and if Pinochet is fit to make such deals, does this not suggest that he remains fit to stand?). However justice must be seen to be done, so that the evidential basis for any proposal to let Pinochet go must be made available, not just to states like Spain, Switzerland, France and Belgium, but to organisations representing Pinochet’s victims, and to the world public which has a strong and legitimate interest in the case.

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