Pinochet Untouchable, British Court Rules

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Can a former head of state be prosecuted as a war criminal? No, said Britain's Lord Chief Justice Thomas Bingham on Wednesday, "a former head of state is clearly entitled to immunity for criminal acts committed in the course of exercising public functions." With that he quashed the arrest warrant on Chile's General Augusto Pinochet, although the ex-dictator will remain a prisoner pending an appeal of the ruling. "Whatever political decision Britain had planned to make over Pinochet, they now face the deeper issue of setting a precedent," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell.

The court's ruling certainly appears to put the kibosh on any attempt, for example, to indict Serb president Slobodan Milosevic over Balkan "ethnic cleansing"; on the face of it, even Adolf Hitler would have been immune to prosecution in Britain. But the opposite precedent may have been equally troubling to London: "Upholding Pinochet's immunity claim may let other dictators off the hook," says Dowell, "but denying his immunity potentially leaves British officials themselves vulnerable to prosecution abroad for actions undertaken in Ireland, for example." Either way, as the Pinochet potato gets hotter and hotter, Britain may rue its failure to have followed France's lead and simply denied him a visa.