Leading Article: Spain v Pinochet: may justice be the winner

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TODAY, THE case of the government of Spain v Augusto Pinochet Ugarte opens at Bow Street magistrates court. Ronald Bartle, the Deputy Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, will decide after about a week whether to grant Spain's request for extradition on charges of torture.

It would be improper to pre-judge Mr Bartle's decision, but let's be: there is no doubt that the request should be granted. Indeed, this case turns only on the question of whether the correct procedure has been followed. But beyond this technicality stands a larger issue and a brighter hope.

It is not just the hope of bringing the former Chilean dictator to justice. It was notable that President Habibie of Indonesia decided to allow United Nations peace-keepers into East Timor within days of Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, raising the possibility of a special tribunal to investigate crimes against humanity.

Since the end of the Second World War, the idea that certain crimes are so heinous that they can be tried anywhere in the world has been on the statute book of international law. But it was not until the end of the Cold War that it became a practical reality. Since then there have been the war crimes tribunals in Bosnia. Then there was Nato's action in Kosovo, which put an end to the notion that outsiders could not intervene in the affairs of a "sovereign" state. Most recently there has been the UN's belated intervention in East Timor (although the UN never recognised Indonesia's annexation). Now the arrest and trial of General Pinochet increases the possibility that international law will develop into an effective instrument against tyrants.

A Bow Street magistrate cannot, of course, be influenced by the moral pleading of a newspaper. But if he could, we would say: Send him to Spain, Mr Bartle.