SANTIAGO – Today marks an important date in the history of Chile, as it is exactly 20 years ago former dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London. Pinochet was undergoing a surgery to his back in the London Bridge Hospital when Scotland Yard officers seized him. The arrested general was held for one and a half year before being extradited to Chile.
For Chilean exiles, victims from Pinochets dictatorship and their families, October 16, 1998, marks an important date. Augusto Pinochet was arrested on an international warrant while visiting the United Kingdom for medical reasons. The warrant had been issued by Spanish judges, as part of an investigation on the human rights violations during Pinochets regime in Chile.
For the United Kingdom, the arrest of Augusto Pinochet was an historic event, as it was the first time a (former) head of state was arrested on British territory, thus having no entitlement to immunity. Pinochets lawyer protested by stating that because of his poor health conditions and the 1978 amnesty law in Chile, the arrest was illegal. Earlier in 1998, Pinochet had taken seat as life-long senator in the Chilean Senate, making him immune from prosecution in his home country.
Diplomatic battle for his extradition
For years, Spanish judges Baltasar Garzon and Manuel Garcia Castellon had tried to get Pinochet to stand trial for his murder and torture in Chile, and the torture of Spanish citizens and the murder of a Spanish diplomat in 1975. After investigating crimes committed during his regime, the judges issued the warrant through Interpol, after which Scotland Yard had to react.
His arrest in London meant the start of an international diplomatic btattle, as Pinochets long lasting ally and British former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. president George Bush opposed his arrest and possible extradition. Then Chilean president Eduardo Frei also protested the arrest of Pinochet, considering it “a violation of diplomatic immunity”.
Also, within the British House of Lords there was heavy debating about the legal fundament of the arrest and a possible extradition of the former dictator to Spain. After various cases, the Lords decided that extradition could proceed – a decision hailed by the UN Human Rights commission. Chile withdrew his ambassador from Madrid as reaction to the warrant. Belgium, France and Switzerland on the other hand, also filed extradition bids upon the request of Spain.
Back to Chile because of fragile health
But at the end, it were the health problems of the 82-year-old former dictator that proved decisive. Jack Straw, the British Home Secretary, decided to let Pinochet go to return to Chile. The Belgium government, Amnesty International and several other human rights organizations fought the decision at the International Court of Justice, but without any result.
On the 3rd of March, 2000, broadcasted live on television, Pinochet landed in Santiago where he was greeted by thousands of supporters and the head of the Chilean Armed Forces. For both Chile and the world a sign, that 27 years after the coup d´etat against democratically elected president Salvador Allende, Pinochet was still one of the most popular figures in the country.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today.