The Miami Herald
March 3, 2000
Detention seen as a crucial rights case


 Supporters of former Chilean strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet may be
 celebrating Britain's decision to allow his return home as a political victory, but his
 17-month detention in London is more likely to go down in history as a triumph for
 advocates of expanded human rights.

 International law experts stress that Pinochet was released after being ruled
 mentally unfit to stand trial, not because of Britain's objections to the case
 brought against him.

 ``This case has been one big victory for human rights, from the beginning to the
 end,'' said Reed Brody, advocacy director for the Human Rights Watch monitoring
 group in New York. ``The fact that Gen. Pinochet was arrested, that the House of
 Lords twice ruled that he had no immunity and that four countries sought his
 extradition has revolutionized the way the world deals with the worst atrocities.''

 According to Brody and other human rights advocates, the most important legacy
 of Pinochet's arrest in London at the request of a Spanish judge will be the March
 1999 ruling by the Law Lords -- the British equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court --
 that a former ruler can be tried by British courts for abuses committed in his
 home country.

 The Lords ruled 6-1 that a head of state charged with violating the International
 Convention Against Torture can be tried as a criminal in any of the 112 nations
 that have signed the treaty.

 That decision, they say, may have marked the beginning of a new era of
 ``globalized justice.'' In their view, the former president's release is a
 circumstantial decision that does not eclipse Britain's ground-breaking earlier

 Carlos Salinas, a spokesman for Amnesty International in Washington,
 characterized it as ``the most important human rights case since the Nuremberg
 trials,'' referring to the trials of former Nazi officials at the end of World War II. ``It's
 the first step in a new era of human rights accountability.''


 Britain ventured into new legal territory when it detained Pinochet at a London
 hospital in October 1998 as he was recovering from back surgery, and the House
 of Lords ruled the following March that he could be extradited to Spain.

 Technically, it was not the first time a government official had faced an
 international tribunal for crimes committed at home. In addition to the Nazi war
 criminals in the mid-'40s, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was indicted in May
 1999 by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at The Hague and may be tried if he is
 ever arrested.

 A more recent case stemming from the Pinochet precedent involves Hissene
 Habre, the former president of Chad.

 The 57-year-old former dictator is expected to stand trial later this year in Senegal
 on charges of torture, political killings and disappearances -- the same types of
 violations that ensnared Pinochet. Habre has been living in Senegal since 1990
 but was placed under house arrest after human rights groups filed charges in a
 Senegal court on the basis of universal jurisdiction for the political crimes.

 Brody called the Pinochet case the ``inspirational paternity'' for the Habre
 prosecution. ``It was because of the Pinochet case that Chadian human rights
 organizations approached Human Rights Watch and said, `What can we do about
 Habre?' We looked at it and we took on the case.''


 The Pinochet prosecution marked the first time a former head of state had been
 taken into custody to stand trial abroad by a conventional court rather than an
 international panel established specifically for a certain purpose, such as the
 Nuremberg or Serbian war crimes tribunals, legal experts say.

 ``It's a very important precedent,'' said Stephen Schnably, a professor of
 international law at the University of Miami. ``It means that any former head of
 state has to worry when traveling out of the country whether he will enjoy
 immunity from prosecutors or civil lawsuits.''

 Legal experts agree that the Pinochet case will weaken the notion that former
 heads of state enjoy immunity for their actions while in power. Also, it will make it
 harder for dictatorships to shield themselves behind the concept of national
 sovereignty to prevent other countries from looking into their human rights abuses.

 In addition, it may accelerate efforts to launch the International Criminal Court, a
 United Nations body whose creation was approved in 1998 by 92 countries -- not
 including the United States and China.

 Some experts say the Pinochet affair was so messy from a legal point of view
 that many countries may prefer that future cases be tried in a more orderly way
 by an international court. Other countries may fear that having national courts
 judge foreign human rights abusers may lead to politically motivated trials.


 Creation of the International Criminal Court still has to cross legal hurdles. So far
 only six countries -- Italy, Senegal, Trinidad and Tobago, San Marino, Fiji and
 Ghana -- of the necessary 60 have ratified the statutes. But several European
 countries, including France and England, are taking steps to ratify it, and many
 more are likely to follow, experts say.

 ``I have no doubt that the International Criminal Court will exist within two or three
 years,'' says Johan Van der Vyver, a professor of international law at Emory
 University in Atlanta. ``It may exist without the United States, but it will exist.''

 U.S. officials say they support the idea of the international court, but fear U.S.
 adversaries will start politically motivated prosecutions with trumped up charges
 against U.S. officials. Conservatives in the U.S. Congress have opposed
 international jurisdiction over U.S. laws since the International Court of Justice in
 The Hague ruled against the United States in a case brought by Nicaragua's
 leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s.

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald