Pinochet for beginners




Inside the dictatorship



Search site


Declarations & Statements


The Independent, 13.1.00

Comment: Mr Straw's sleight of hand mocks justice and insults the victims of torture.

So that's it, then. The man who oversaw torture and killing in his country on a grand scale looks set to return home to cultivate his Chilean garden, undisturbed by conscience or by international law courts. General Augusto Pinochet is being allowed to go free for one reason above all: his absence will make life easier for Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. The prospective departure of the former Chilean dictator insults both those who died and those who survived his brutal regime. It is easy to portray him now as a frail old man who deserves to be left alone. His medical condition is the reason why Mr Straw is "minded" to allow his release. But the Government refuses to publish the medical reports that persuaded Mr Straw to take his decision. Not surprisingly: the medical tests were conducted with the specific intention of letting the general - and, by extension, Mr Straw - off the hook.

The case of Ernest Saunders, the Guinness boss who underwent a truly astonishing cure from Alzheimer's, is a reminder of how peculiar these medical reports can be: Mr Saunders suffered from Alzheimer's while he was in prison and was therefore released; after his release, his missing marbles turned up and he is now an Internet consultant. What a miracle. Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street spokesman, blathered on yesterday about the importance of "medical privacy". But it is standard practice in criminal cases for medical evidence to be disclosed. For confidentiality to be invoked in this context makes a mockery of the legal system. In the absence of medical evidence being disclosed, one is forced to draw the obvious and cynical conclusion. Yes, the 84-year-old general suffers from diabetes, wears a pacemaker and has suffered two minor strokes. The poor lamb is even reported to suffer from "depression" since his arrest 15 months ago. But many suspects have been forced to stand trial while depressed or in poor health. A minor stroke should not count you out of court.

General Pinochet may yet face trial in his home country. That would be welcome: trials are best held in the country where crimes were committed.

Pinochet's immunity has been removed. But prosecution still looks unlikely, given the continuing schisms within Chile itself. General Pinochet's supporters are understandably eager to interpret Mr Straw's ruling as a vindication. Baroness Thatcher, who until this week was ready to fume at the very mention of Mr Straw's name, has suddenly decided that Mr Straw is "a very fair man". With friends like that, who needs enemies?

There are small crumbs of good news. The principle has been established that heads of state who commit crimes against humanity can be put on trial.

In addition, the prospect of the General's early return to Chile may flush out (and thus embarrass) Joaquin Lavin, the former Pinochet sympathiser who is standing in Chile's presidential elections on Sunday, and who has tried to distance himself from his former mentor. The prospects of the anti-Pinochet candidate, Ricardo Lagos, now look better than they did. But the British Government's line of reasoning is clear. Despite all the previously highfalutin talk of morality and justice, Mr Straw has chosen the path of least resistance - using the doctors' reports as political camouflage. Such breathtaking cynicism must at last be overthrown.

Top of page