By Philippe Sands
October 16, 2008 “Guardian”
The arrest warrant served on the Chilean head of state in 1998 changed history and has implications for the US government now
On October 16 1998, a magistrate signed a warrant for the arrest of Senator Augusto Pinochet and changed the course of history. The former Chilean head of state was arrested a few hours later, at the request of a Spanish prosecutor who charged him with a raft of international crimes, some dating back to the early 1970s. Over the next 18 months, one dramatic development followed another. The House of Lords rendered three landmark judgments in the space of five months; home secretary Jack Straw defied expectations by giving a green light to the continuation of proceedings that could lead to Pinochet’s removal to Madrid; Pinochet made a dramatic appearance in the dock at Belmarsh magistrate’s court; and eventually Straw decided that Pinochet was too unhealthy to stand trial and he was returned to Chile in April 2000. For the rest of his life he was dogged by legal proceedings.
One central question lay at the heart of the whole affair: was a former head of state entitled to claim immunity before the English courts, where it was alleged that he had participated in crimes, in violation of international conventions, such as torture? This question had never before been decided. It pitted two competing views of international relations against each other: traditionalists argued that the maintenance of serene relations between states required the courts of one state to refrain from sitting in judgment over the highest officials of another; the modernists argued that no person was above the law where the most serious international crimes were involved, and that the system of human rights laws put in place after the second world war substituted a rule of immunity with a new rule against impunity.
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