Put Pinochet on trial

January 26, 2000

Put Pinochet on trial

British home secretary Jack Straw's January 12 statement that he is "minded" to release Chilean General Augusto Pinochet, rather than extradite him to Spain to face charges of torture and crimes against humanity, should be roundly condemned by all supporters of democracy and human rights.

Straw's move is both underhanded and politically motivated. He has refused to release the government's medical assessments which found that Pinochet is neither physically nor mentally fit to be extradited to Spain (although, apparently, he is fit to return across the Atlantic to Chile). International legal experts believe that Pinochet's release is now all but guaranteed unless his accusers can gain access to Straw's medical report in order to challenge the findings.

In October 1998, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon filed for Pinochet's extradition from Britain, where he was seeking medical treatment, to Spain. Since then, both the British and Chilean governments have sought a face-saving solution which would return the former dictator to Chile. The recent switch by Chilean diplomats, from arguing that Pinochet is immune from prosecution as a former head of state to arguing that he is medically unfit, now appears to have been contrived with British officials.

What is at stake in bringing Pinochet to trial is not just the public exposure of the horrific crimes perpetrated by one, now aged and infirm, but still evil, man, but also the culpability of imperialist governments who collaborated with him.

The revelation of how Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973, and of how he ruled from then until his retirement in 1990, would expose the extent of involvement of foreign powers in crimes against humanity.

Following Pinochet's arrest, international pressure forced the Clinton administration in the US to declassify and release official documents on the military government in Chile. The Senate select committee studying US intelligence operations in the mid-1970s (the Church Committee) confirmed that the Richard Nixon administration and the CIA had collaborated in a plan to prevent the 1970 election of Allende, and to destabilise his government thereafter.

But until there is a full trial, we won't know to what extent the CIA was involved in the execution of the 1973 coup, nor to what degree the CIA maintained an operational relationship with Chilean intelligence agencies thereafter. The truth will remain concealed, as the US and other Western governments obviously intend.

The actions of Western governments in the Pinochet case stand in stark contrast to their vigorous attempts to arrest, extradite, prosecute and punish dictators they fall out with. NATO forces are still searching for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the US would love to get its hands on Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. In 1990, US forces even levelled Panama City to arrest their former ally Manual Noriega.

Dictators who remain loyal to Western interests don't receive the same treatment: obviously, murderers have a form of "solidarity" of their own.

Certainly, if Pinochet is winging it to Chile next week instead of facing extradition to Spain, despots everywhere will be able to breathe easier (with or without their oxygen masks and wheelchairs), relying on their age and infirmity to escape international conventions and treaties.

But neither their age nor their infirmity should prevent Pinochet, or Indonesia's Suharto or Ethiopia's Mengistu or any of the others, from being brought to justice, just as age and infirmity wasn't a defence for the Nazis tried at Nuremberg.

There is one complicating factor for Pinochet's supporters, however. There continues to be protests all around the world demanding that Pinochet be extradited to Spain to stand trial or, failing that, that he be tried upon his return to Chile. At the January 16 election victory rally for the new, moderate Chilean President, Ricardo Lagos, some 60,000 people began an impromptu and repeated chant, "Put Pinochet on trial". We should join them in that demand.

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