Autumn Turns to British Winter for Gen. Pinochet

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The long English winter to which the patriarch must now resign himself is another small but important victory for the international human rights community. A London magistrate Friday upheld a Spanish court's request to extradite General Augusto Pinochet on charges of torture and kidnapping. And even though the former Chilean strongman has the right to appeal to the High Court — and to the British government, on compassionate grounds — the decision will give war criminals everywhere plenty of reason to be nervous. "The message it sends is that if you've committed a crime against humanity, you're liable for your actions no matter how long after the fact and regardless of your age and condition," says TIME United Nations correspondent William Dowell. "Human rights lawyers believe that knowledge will restrain perpetrators everywhere."

General Pinochet was excused from attending the hearing into charges of murder, kidnapping and torture committed by his 1973-90 military junta after his doctor testified that he had recently suffered two small strokes and is languishing in depression. Even if he appeals successfully against Friday's ruling, or if Home Secretary Jack Straw is persuaded to send him home on compassionate grounds, the effect of Pinochet's arrest a year ago in Britain has been to sentence him to more than a year in a state of legal limbo, which appears to have exacted a heavy toll on the general. In addition, concerns about repercussions both in Chile and in the overall diplomatic community appear to have been overblown. "The initial fears that the case would spark a military backlash in Chile have proved unfounded," says Dowell. "And the longer the trial goes on, the more he's likely to find himself alone." That personal accountability is exactly the message that human rights activists want the Pinochet case to send to anyone anywhere in the world who may be about to apply electrodes to a captive's body.