A Sick Pinochet May Go Free, but Not Pardoned

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General Augusto Pinochet looks set to regain his freedom, but not necessarily his dignity. Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw announced Tuesday that a panel of doctors had found the 84-year-old former Chilean dictator medically unfit to stand trial, which leaves Britain inclined to end extradition proceedings and send Pinochet home. Straw has given Spain, which wants to extradite the general to stand trial on charges of torture arising out of the deaths of some of the 3,000 political opponents slain during his 16-year reign, until Tuesday to persuade him otherwise, but has made clear that he's leaning toward freeing Pinochet. The general, who has been detained in Britain pending extradition since October 1998, suffers from diabetes and arthritis, uses a heart pacemaker and suffered two mild strokes in September.

Straw's statement was welcomed by the Chilean government, but was condemned by the families of Pinochet's victims, who have argued that the general's health should become a factor in considering his fate only aftera trial. Officials of the present government suggest the general may yet face charges in Chile, but this is made unlikely not only by his health and the immunity he decreed for himself at the end of his reign, but also by the fact that his supporters are well placed to win Saturday's runoff presidential election. Nonetheless, the general's release won't be much of a victory for Pinochet and his supporters, who initially fought hard against the perceived insult of freeing him on compassionate grounds rather than on recognition of his claim of immunity as a former sovereign head of state. This way, the general gets to go home, but without the vindication he desires — and the impact of being shamed in the West can't be underestimated on a man who rationalized the excesses of his regime as necessary to the defense of Western ideals. The General Augusto Pinochet who returns to Chile after 15 months of the utter powerlessness and uncertainty of a prisoner awaiting trial — and an unsympathetic hearing in the court of international public opinion — will be a diminished man in every respect.