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Posted Monday, October 19, 1998


British national newspaper condemns London arrest of General Pinochet as shameful "contempt for the law"


The law and Pinochet

SIX months ago, the Government turned down a request from Germany for the extradition of Roisin McAliskey, who was wanted in connection with the IRA mortar attack on a British army barracks in Osnabrück. Ministers justified their decision by citing her poor health, denying that they were influenced by political considerations. On Saturday, the same Government arrested Augusto Pinochet, a senator from a friendly country who had travelled to London on a diplomatic passport -- and who, for what it is worth, is unquestionably in poor health, having just had an operation at the London Clinic.

Comparing the two cases, it is difficult to accept that ministers are following a set of inflexible legal principles. Many Labour MPs, as undergraduates, cut their political teeth campaigning against Pinochet. During the 1970s, campus radicals regarded his regime with the same inarticulate rage that their immediate predecessors had directed against the Vietnam war. Judging by their comments over the weekend, those Labour MPs have neither mellowed nor matured. The idea that Britain is simply discharging its international obligations is difficult to reconcile with all the talk of Pinochet's arrest being sanctioned at the highest political level, and of this being an example of Labour's ethical foreign policy in action.

Many Labour backbenchers -- and some frontbenchers -- seem to be allowing their inchoate hatred of the general to override any concerns about the proper application of the law. It is on legal rather than political grounds that his extradition ought be decided. But so much nonsense has been broadcast and written about Chile in recent days that it is worth reminding ourselves of one or two facts.

The main complaint against Pinochet is that he overthrew the "elected socialist government" of Salvador Allende. This statement, while literally accurate, is misleading. It is true that Allende was elected, with 36.5 per cent of the vote, in September 1970.

But, once in power, his administration embarked on a series of measures that were neither foreshadowed in his manifesto nor compatible with the Chilean constitution.

Farms were confiscated and companies seized. As the economy collapsed, land invasions became common, and parts of the country slid into lawlessness. Meanwhile, the president was leading Chile unashamedly into the Communist bloc, forging close relations with the Soviet Union and with Castro's Cuba. By 1973 there were ominous signs that elements in the government intended to dispense with future elections and establish a Marxist dictatorship. It was this that prompted the military coup.

There is no denying that the seizure of power was bloody. Many Chileans lost their lives, some of them guilty of nothing more than Leftwing sympathies or trade union activism. It is understandable and legitimate to seek justice on their behalf.

Yet guiltless Chileans also died under Allende, and thousands more would have suffered had he remained in office. It is worth remembering that the Pinochet regime was endorsed by twothirds of the electorate in a referendum in 1980, and that it relinquished power peacefully when it narrowly lost a second referendum in 1988.

Chile's transition to multiparty democracy has since rested on a delicate web of agreements between its former and current rulers -- a web which Pinochet's arrest could now tear apart. It is perhaps also worth remembering that, throughout his time in office, Pinochet was an unstinting ally of this country. Chile was the only Latin American state to support Britain during the Falklands conflict (when Spain, incidentally, was more or less overtly proArgentina).

Few people in the world are as enthusiastically Anglophile as Chileans, to whom Britain embodies decency and fair play. Yet our country, having allowed Pinochet to enter its borders for medical treatment, has now detained him in order to comply with a case brought by the Spanish Communist Party. That we should deal so shoddily with a friendly state is bad enough; that we should simultaneously display such contempt for the law is shameful.  

Our opinion
WE wholeheartedy endorse this editorial, published in Britain's leading conversative broadsheet newspaper.

Many older Labour members of the British parliament are still in their hearts fighting the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, and those hearts still ache for a victory of the Moscow-backed Republicans over the insurgents led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Foolishly, as it turned out, trusting in Britain's ancient traditions of hospitality and help for the sick, the elderly general gave himself into the care of a London hospital. British police burst into his sickroom after midnight to arrest him. Did they think he might have a gun concealed under the pillow? That he might leap out of the window and escape? What is the Spanish for "Freeze?" Did they read him his Miranda rights?

If Home Secretary Jack Straw is willing to authorise such an operation against the retired head of state of a friendly power, we can surely expect him to sign the German government's demands for the extradition of those who have offended against their laws for the suppression of free speech -- without giving them a second glance, let alone taxing the capillaries of what he laughably calls his brain.

The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical

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