The day torturers suddenly became criminals

The Pinochet verdict was not perfect but it was welcome, says Sheila Cassidy

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My enduring image of last Wednesday afternoon was of a little man with the fea-tures of a Mapuchee (Chilean) Indian walking a white West Highland terrier outside the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Jorge, an ex-soldier who went into asylum in the Venezuelan Embassy in Santiago in 1975, was clearly at home outside the Mother of Parliaments and rejoiced with the rest of us that Augusto Pinochet was one step nearer to standing trial for his crimes of repression in Chile.

I found a delicious irony in the fact that Jorge, who comes from one of the most oppressed classes in Chile, should be the doting owner of a pedigree dog which is a sort of icon of British middle-classness. Jorge and I fell foul of the Chilean secret police around the same time, he because as a soldier he refused to torture and kill his fellow countrymen and I because I rendered medical aid to a wounded revolutionary. I am glad it was I who was caught and tortured, not he, for I doubt he would have survived the fury of his colleagues.

On Wednesday, when Jorge was outside the Houses of Parliament, seven law lords had just ruled that General Pinochet's status as a former head of state does not mean that he is immune from extradition to face charges of torture and conspiracy to torture. There is, however, a condition, and this is the source of some confusion. At any rate it explains why both the pro- and the anti-Pinochet factions are claiming victory. The condition is that Pinochet cannot be extradited for crimes committed before 8 December 1988, the day on which the UK signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

It's incredible, isn't it? Before that date torture in Chile was not considered any concern of Britain's. It's a bit like saying you can look over your garden fence and observe your neighbours abusing their child, but it's no concern of yours because the child is not being abused in your garden. The law is indeed an ass. If the Chilean secret police had stopped torturing people before 8 December 1988 - and, after all, that was 15 years after the coup - then, presumably, the general would be winging his way back to Chile in his private jet.

As it happens, of course, they did not stop torturing people. There is the case of the 17-year-old Marcos Quezada Yanez, whose torture Pinochet ordered on 24 June 1989 and who died after electric-shock treatment. So, will the general be sent to Spain to be tried for Marcos's murder? Unless Jack Straw changes his mind, and there seems no reason why he should, then the extradition should go ahead. The friends of Pinochet, of course, are saying that the charges have been drastically reduced, and so, technically, they have. But one murder remains, and one murder is enough to send the general for trial.

But what of Jorge and all the other Chileans who fled for their lives into exile? Where is justice for them? How does their suffering weigh in the account? Their gratitude for being given a safe haven does not take away the problems of adjusting to life in an alien land. Nor does it take away the anguish of being separated from loved ones, the difficulties with language and the frustration that their hard-won academic qualifications are not recognised. And, last of all, safety does not take away the nightmares, the flashbacks, the irrational fears, the impotence of those who have been tortured.

But at least the exiles are alive. What about the many dead, the thousands of young men and women who disappeared during the Pinochet regime? What about those who were shot in the back of the head and buried in a mass grave, or dropped, hands bound with barbed wire, from a helicopter into the sea? How is it that the general has escaped being charged with having their blood on his hands?

I find it curious that the judges could disagree so markedly. Lord Goff of Chieveley, left to himself, would have dismissed the appeal and let Pinochet go. Lord Millett, on the other hand, was of the opinion that "Senator" Pinochet can be extradited to Spain to face the charges relating to torture and conspiracy to torture wherever and whenever carried out. Lord Goff holds that he is immune from extradition for all alleged crimes while Lord Millett says he should stand trial for all. When doctors disagree...

I am not a lawyer and I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of the law. Frankly, it seems incredible that a man can be immune from extradition for a crime committed on one day and extraditable for one committed on the next. What if Marcos had died on 7 December 1988 and not on 24 June 1989? Would Pinochet be free from blame, or at any rate beyond the reach of the long arm of the law?

But Marcos did die after the UK signed the Convention Against Torture and it looks as though he will not have died in vain. It is important that we in the UK do not forget the anguish of the families of the disappeared. At the press conference after the hearing at the Lords, someone spoke of a mother who, 25 years on, still irons the shirts and changes the bedlinen of her son who disappeared in the aftermath of the coup. Such grief does not bear thinking about. We owe it to that woman, and those like her, to bring the killers to justice.

And 20 years from now, will we remember Marcos, whose death set a precedent for refusing hospitality to dictators? Who knows? But I know that I shall never forget the sight of Jorge, the foot soldier who narrowly escaped with his life, walking his dog outside the Houses of Parliament in London. What he did for his countrymen he also did for me and for the thousands of others who suffered at the hands of Pinochet's torturers.

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