When Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte arrived in London for a few weeks' stay in September 1998, he never imagined that his visit would become 15 months besieged by police guards, furious demonstrations and a lengthy legal battle to avoid extradition to Spain on charges of human rights abuses. Last week, however, Home Secretary Jack Straw indicated Pinochet's prolonged stay could soon be over. He said he was "minded" to send Pinochet home for health reasons: an examination by four independent doctors unanimously concluded that the health of 84-year-old Pinochet, who has suffered several recent minor strokes, had deteriorated and that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.
Straw gave the Spanish authorities and any others who opposed his plan a week to make their case, although it appeared unlikely he would change his mind. He nevertheless faced an angry reaction from human rights groups, left-wingers from his own Labour Party and the prosecuting Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, all of whom want Pinochet to account in court for the death and disappearance of more than 3,000 people in Chile after he seized power in 1973. "This is a blow for our fight to bring the murderer to justice," said Marcella Pradenas, a Chilean exile in Madrid who was tortured by Pinochet's police. Activists also demanded that the medical report, which was shown only to the British prosecuting authorities, be released to the public. But Straw, who two years ago cited medical grounds in refusing Germany's request for the extradition of Roisin McAliskey, a suspect in an Irish Republican Army bombing, insisted on Pinochet's right to patient confidentiality.
As Garzón challenged Straw's decision with various demands, there was an almost audible sigh of relief in Spanish government and business circles. Spain stood to lose valuable contracts if Pinochet's trial went ahead, and would also be open to criticism that little had been done to examine Spain's own past under Francisco Franco's long dictatorship. In addition, Pinochet's departure will relieve British government concerns that the ailing Pinochet may die while in British custody.
The release of Pinochet will also satisfy the Chilean government, which has repeatedly asked for his return to face judicial processes in his own country. Human rights organisations doubt that Pinochet will ever see a Chilean civil court, if only because of his immunity as a "senator for life," a title he took when he stepped down from supreme power in 1990. But Pablo Cabrera, Chile's ambassador to London, cited the case of one senator who lost his parliamentary immunity, and said that several dozen cases of human rights abuses, allegedly involving Pinochet, were under way in Chile. "Pinochet plays no role in politics now ... but the new generations need to know everything about it (the regime)," he said. "If Pinochet does not return, his image could be distorted by some...he could be transformed into a martyr."
Even if Pinochet never stands trial, however, the case has set a legal precedent: former heads of state may now consider themselves internationally accountable for acts carried out during their time in office. It remains to be seen, however, if the Pinochet case also means dictators will be loath to relinquish power.
With reporting by Jane Walker/Madrid