- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2000

"I do not recognize the jurisdiction of any other court, except in my country, to try me against all the lies of Spain," Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet told a London court in December 1998.

Now, thanks to a decision this week by Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw, Mr. Pinochet, who has been held under house arrest in Britain for 15 months, may soon be sent back home to Chile. For Chileans and other Latin Americans, however, the Pinochet affair won't soon be forgotten. Mr. Pinochet's defiance, resonant with Latin America's old antagonism toward the Spanish crown, generated support and sympathy at home that his pursuers undoubtedly failed to anticipate.

In October 1998, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon asked Britain to extradite Mr. Pinochet to Madrid, where the former dictator would stand trial on charges he committed crimes against humanity during his rule of Chile from 1973-1989. In October 1999, a British court granted Mr. Garzon's extradition request. That decision was subsequently appealed and another hearing was to be held in March. But on Tuesday, Britain's Mr. Straw announced he would probably send the 84-year-old general back to Chile because he wasn't healthy enough to stand trial.

Many Chileans, of diverse political stripes, saw the request for Mr. Pinochet's extradition to Spain as an imperial affront to Chile's sovereignty. The Chilean government fought in British courts against the extradition request by the Spanish judge, although many officials, including the foreign minister, were old Pinochet rivals who were exiled during the general's rule. The Spanish government, meanwhile, eager to maintain good relations with its former colonies, has shown scant enthusiasm for Mr. Garzon's pursuit of the aging general and said this week it would have no objections to sending him back to Chile for health reasons.

The Chileans and other individuals who saw Mr. Pinochet's extradition as an infringement on Chile's sovereignty were right. Mr. Garzon's experiment with international law was ill-conceived. It was a model not of justice but power of the kind that large nations exercise against former leaders of small countries. For this reason, Mr. Garzon's extradition request harks back to colonial times past. Consider that U.S. documents declassified last year show the FBI tried to track down Chilean leftists in the 1970s on behalf of Mr. Pinochet's government. Despite this U.S. involvement, Mr. Garzon hasn't requested the extradition of any U.S. officials.

Some legal observers feel that the Pinochet case sets a significant precedent to try alleged human-rights abusers outside of their own countries. If so former Russian President Boris Yeltsin could presumably be tried for his role in the genocidal war on Chechnya, and probably ought to be. Likewise, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia could have been arrested during one of his diplomatic trips abroad. Or what about Cuba's Fidel Castro? Now, there's a candidate. A trial of Mr. Yeltsin is most unlikely, however, since it would risk provoking a nuclear-equipped country.

If a judge from a small country, such as Chile, were to move against a nation such as Russia, the international reaction would certainly be worth watching. Well-deserved as the punishment might be, it is surely the case that politics will get mixed up in the search for universal justice, whether we like it or not.

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