The decision was not unanimous. Two judges voted for release, three against. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, still has the final decision of whether to allow extradition to go ahead. In the days to come, and in the light of the full published judgment, there will no doubt be all sorts of legal arguments over the implications of the decisions.
But in this wondrous, and unexpected, moment, let us be clear on one thing. Lords Nicholls, Steyn and Hoffman have made a judgment of profound importance not just for this country and visiting dictators and criminals, but for the whole course of justice for crimes against humanity.
This was a ruling made under the full glare of world interest and arrived at after only the fullest and uniquely open consideration of the evidence from all interested parties. At the end of the day the highest court in Britain judged that General Pinochet was not protected by his former position as head of state from the full rigours of international law, the accusations of his accusers and the cries of his victims.
For a British Government that stumbled into this extraordinary crisis as much through blundering as design, yesterday's judgment may have come as something of an embarrassment. It would have been so much easier to have bathed in the warm glow of high morality while leaving it to the courts to prevent the practical consequences.
Now Jack Straw has to face the consequences of arresting a visiting dignatory seeking to buy arms and gain medical treatment in this country. It would seem almost inconceivable that he could use his authority to prevent actual extradition to Spain.
This will not be entirely welcome to a Chilean political establishment that has tried to smooth over transition to democracy by allowing Pinochet to continue in public life untried and unapologetic. It will be objected to by some legal opinion that sees such a judgment taking this country and others into uncharted waters full of doubtful legal implications. It will certainly be objected to by those who feel that Pinochet's crimes should be ignored because of the fact that he was, in Lady Thatcher's awful phrase, "a good friend to this country".
But the Chilean dictator's crimes cannot be ignored. They are too horrendous and too deliberate for that. It is precisely because he was in charge at the time that Pinochet should be held responsible. In deciding that Pinochet could not be extradited because the crimes alleged were committed when he was head of state, the Appeals Court - the initial judgment of which the House of Lords has now overruled - was in danger of declaring that Hitler, had he been caught, should not have been tried in Nuremberg while his minions were.
In saying that justice should be left to the Chileans, the government there is in danger of suggesting that Spain has no right to justice for its citizens killed under military rule there, or that Britain should not seek justice for its citizens murdered by Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein or Idi Amin.
Which is precisely the point. Coming on top of the first arraignments at the Bosnian War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and the agreement earlier this autumn in Rome to establish a permanent tribunal for crimes against humanity, yesterday's judgment by the law lords has immeasurably strengthened the move to hold the world's dictators responsible for their actions.
If dozens of visitors now feel a great deal less secure about visiting Britain, all to the good. They shouldn't feel secure here, or anywhere. Now that Pinochet has been brought to book, could Slobodan Milosevic be next?Reuse content