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The Independent, 3.3.00

Leader: General Pinochet should have faced trial, but his fate will still deter tyrants

There are two important points to be made about the Pinochet case - or three if you count reminding people that the correct pronunciation sounds the T at the end of his name. The first is that delay is the enemy of justice. The case went on too long - it was 16 months ago that the general was arrested at midnight as he recuperated from a back operation in the London clinic. If he had been promptly dispatched to Spain before his failing health provided the excuse to return him to Chile, justice could have been done.

The lawyers, who have earned more than pounds 1.3m of taxpayers' money, will argue that, precisely because the case broke new ground, it was bound to take a long time. In fact, the opposite logic should apply. Test cases should be heard speedily, so that the outcome is not coloured by delay. As it is, the victims of General Pinochet's reign of torture and murder, and their families, have been robbed of the right to have him face trial.

The Home Secretary, having started well, mishandled the final act. Jack Straw should not have allowed the general to insist that the medical examination should be confidential, and the court was right to rule that it should be made available to the interested parties.

Nor would it be unduly cynical, now that the reports have been leaked, to conclude that there was nothing much wrong with the general that the Ernest Saunders Miracle Cure could not have put right. It may be that Mr Straw was alarmed that the old tyrant might die here after he suffered two minor strokes last September, and thought it would be simplest to abort the whole process. Instead, that should have strengthened the argument for speeding the process up.

Unfortunately, however, the states and pressure groups that wanted the general to stand trial decided not to challenge the medical reports last week. What was so heartening about the start of the Pinochet case was that it saw the rule of international law take its course without interference from politicians. Sadly, Mr Straw has used just enough of the discretion he has under the law to get General Pinochet out of the country according to due legal process. It would have been better if he had stayed out of the case altogether.

The second point about the case, however, is that, despite all its imperfections, it still marks a huge step forward for the idea that fundamental human rights can be defended all over the world. The Cold War delayed the development of the Nuremberg doctrine - that some crimes are so terrible that they cannot be regarded as merely the internal affairs of states - for more than 40 years. But since the fall of Communism, the body of international law has expanded rapidly. The United Nations Convention Against Torture was only signed in 1985, but it is already an accepted part of international law, even though it has not been ratified by the United States. Nor, indeed, has the US agreed to be bound by the new International Criminal Court, which could make these laws much more easily enforceable.

But that will happen, and the Pinochet case makes it more likely to happen. The state of affairs when General Pinochet was arrested should be remembered. Peter Mandelson, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, spoke for many when he said: "The idea that such a brutal dictator as Pinochet should claim diplomatic immunity, for most people in this country, would be pretty gut-wrenching stuff." It has now been established firmly that diplomatic immunity does not protect murderers and torturers from justice. It has taken too long, but great progress has been made.

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