Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is a free man after 17 months of enforced detention in Britain.
Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw yesterday decided, on medical grounds, that the aging General Pinochet should not be extradited to Spain to face charges of torture and other abuses committed under his 1973-1990 military regime, and should be allowed to fly home.
Despite his release, the case establishes a landmark in international law that is already being felt by other military officials and heads of state. "The fact that Pinochet was arrested, that four countries sought his extradition, that his claim of immunity was rejected ... signaled a sea change in the way that the world deals with atrocities," says Reed Brody, a spokesman for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In January, for example, Hissene Habre, the former leader of Chad, was placed under house arrest in the neighboring African country of Senegal. Several human rights groups filed a criminal complaint there on behalf of tens of thousands of people the groups say were tortured or killed by the Habre regime.
Mr. Habre's indictment was a "direct result" of the Pinochet case, according to Mr. Brody, which he said had "inspired victims around the world."
A spokesman for human rights group Amnesty International called it "the most important human rights precedent since Nuremburg," the German venue of war crimes trials held after World War II.
Last month, British police detained Tharcisse Muvunyi, a former army colonel, in connection with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Other former strongmen that human rights groups would like to see taken to account include former President Suharto of Indonesia, Uganda's Idi Amin, who is living in exile in Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam, who is in Zimbabwe.
"Pinochet has escaped extradition because he is considered unfit to stand trial, not because he is thought to be innocent of his crimes. This has been an important test case," says Geoffrey Bindman, a British human rights lawyer involved in the effort to extradite Pinochet.
In a cloak-and-dagger exercise, British police whisked the elderly Pinochet out of the luxury home in Surrey, near London, where he had been detained. Two hours after Mr. Straw's decision was announced yesterday morning, a Chilean Air Force jet carrying Pinochet left a British military airfield for the 11-hour journey back to Chile.
In October 1998, Pinochet was detained by London police acting on a Spanish arrest warrant while he was in a hospital undergoing medical treatment. Ever since, he has been at the center of a complex legal wrangle. Belgium, Switzerland, and France had also sought to prosecute Pinochet, and supported his extradition.
Among his defenders was Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, who frequently visited Pinochet during his house arrest and accused the British government of treating him unjustly.
Straw based his decision to release Pinochet on a report by four British medical experts. In January, they said he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Straw said at the time that he was "minded" to release the aging general.
This triggered calls from Spain, Belgium, France, and Switzerland for further medical tests, which Straw refused to allow.
British legal experts believe the important precedent set in the Pinochet case is unlikely to be affected by his release on health grounds. The House of Lords decided last year that Pinochet could not claim absolute legal immunity because of his status as a former head of state.
By a majority of 6 to 1, Britain's final court of appeal said no former head of state could get away with committing a crime under international law. The Lords decided that torture was an international crime, regardless of where it may have occurred.
Mark Weller, a specialist in international law at Cambridge University, says the Pinochet case is "important symbolically."
"This forms part of a larger picture," Dr. Weller says. "The international community is now saying that if any person commits an outrageous crime against humanity, that person can no longer hide. No individual can claim to be immune from prosecution because he or she acted on behalf of the state."
Opposition Conservative Party member Ann Widdecombe criticized the "sheer protracted nature" of the process of resolving the case. "Dealing with General Pinochet was never Britain's responsibility, it was Chile's," she said.
Reaction in Chile has been subdued, largely due to public agreements made in the past few weeks not to exacerbate what many here consider to be a source of international embarrassment.
The general's supporters, although clearly pleased, said their representatives planned to welcome him at the airport as private citizens.
"We will not be sponsoring any kind of political demonstrations for the general, only offering the warm personal welcome home he deserves," says Lus Corts Villa, executive director of the Pinochet Foundation in Santiago. The Army also was said to have planned a brief, standard welcome, including a military band.
Relatives of the 3,197 people officially considered dead or missing due to human rights abuses by the Pinochet regime remain philosophical.
"We're taking this very calmly," says Viviana Daz, of the Group for Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Santiago. "[Pinochet's detention] has been a very important advance in the search for justice.... Pinochet will not return to Chile a winner but as someone who has been judged guilty by the world."
Ms. Daz added that plans are under way for an anti-Pinochet rally on Saturday at Chile's National Stadium, the same spot where hundreds were allegedly tortured and killed in the early days of the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that brought him to power.
* Greg Brown in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society