Leading Article: Remain calm as the cogs of justice turn

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GENERAL PINOCHET, still lying in his hospital bed surrounded by armed guards, has become the cause of a series of headaches for his captors. This may go on for a long time: events will now unfold as if in slow motion, as the cogs of British justice begin to turn. The problem for politicians is that they operate on a rather different time-scale, called as they are to account for their actions daily.

Ministers will be asked to comment again and again as the Pinochet case winds its way through Britain's courts, in all probability right up to the House of Lords and the Home Secretary. That pressure must now be resisted. Whether by design or accident, Britain now finds itself in the middle of a diplomatic quagmire. It seems that the United States is ready to exert pressure on behalf of its former client, so that their role in his crimes will not be revealed. Britain can ill afford an open break with its ally over this.

On the other hand, Britain's relations with Spain, at the best of times imperfect, given the problem of Gibraltar, could be damaged by a British decision not to extradite the General. If the decision does finally rest with Jack Straw, there seems faint hope that it will be seen as judicial rather than a political issue. Even so, the Government must do all it can to sustain its impartiality.

So far, the British authorities have done the right thing. They have acted with scrupulous attention to the details of protocol and international law. The Foreign Office was kept informed by the Diplomatic Protection Group, based at Scotland Yard, of all developments as they unfolded. The legal advice they received was clear: General Pinochet was not travelling on a passport that prevented him from being arrested and extradited. So far, so good.

The task now is to carry on the good work. Mr Straw has emphasised that any decision he will make will be made on the merits of the case. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has rightly refused to comment on the case, and childish attempts to portray this affair as evidence of an "ethical foreign policy" or even, as one backbencher tried to, a demonstration of the success of the "Third Way", must be resisted. In reality, British politicians have acted as if caught on the hop, just like the General himself.

Our emotions respond to the dreadful cruelty that Pinochet countenanced in the name of his regime. But rash statements and actions will not help. British interests, and our ability to secure punishment in the long run, demand a cool head and a calm voice.