How General Pinochet’s detention changed the meaning of justice

Former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet was detained in London on 16 October 1998 in a move that changed the idea of international justice forever. Fifteen years on, two of the story’s key players – Spanish lawyer Joan Garcés and former Amnesty International Chile researcher Virginia Shoppeé – share their memories of an event than stunned observers on both sides of the Atlantic.

On 3 October 1998, Virginia Shoppeé was sitting at her desk in Amnesty International’s London headquarters, doing her daily skim through the latest news on Chile, when she came across a surprising dispatch from L’Agence France-Presse. Chile’s former president, the retired general Augusto Pinochet, was about to travel to Europe – including the UK.

Amnesty International had done a lot of work denouncing the atrocities carried out by Pinochet’s regime, which was responsible for the disappearance of more than 3,000 people and the torture of thousands more in a 17-year reign.

Shoppeé’s intial thought was that Pinochet’s trip to Europe offered an opportunity to highlight that work.

She discussed the issue with Javier Zúñiga, the then director of Amnesty International’s Americas department, and drafted the first of many documents on Pinochet that the organization would issue in the ensuing weeks.

The document reminded all European governments, including the UK, of their obligation to detain Pinochet under the rules of the Convention against Torture. But Shoppeé admits now that she never thought Pinochet’s arrest would actually be possible:

“We issued that first document about Pinochet’s visit to Europe because we thought it was the least we could do, but we didn’t expect any great repercussions. I had been in Chile seven months earlier, meeting politicians, victims and their relatives as well as NGO representatives. None of them were thinking about Pinochet’s detention. Human rights violations under his government were considered a closed case.”

However, judicial procedures to arrest Pinochet had already been started by Joan Garcés in July 1996, a Spanish lawyer and former advisor to Salvador Allende, the former Chilean president who had been ousted – and who died – in Pinochet’s coup d’etat.

Garcés thought it may be possible to indict Pinochet using the principles of universal jurisdiction which, in theory, allowed any state to investigate and prosecute individuals for crimes committed in other countries.

The lawyer recalls that he was encouraged by developments relating to atrocities carried about by the military regime in Argentina:

“The Spanish National Court had admitted in 1996 a lawsuit filed by victims of torture and enforced disappearances in Argentina after Parliament had ruled in 1985 that universal jurisdiction could be applied in cases of crimes against humanity, terrorism and genocide”.

Garcés filed a similar lawsuit on Chile, and his team started to gather evidence before the Spanish National Court. Dozens of victims of the Chilean military’s repression travelled to Spain to give testimonies:

“We were waiting for the appropriate moment to ask for an international arrest warrant against Pinochet. It was a complex issue. We had to wait until he travelled to a country with a judiciary that was powerful and independent enough to resist the political and diplomatic pressure that his detention would cause.”

That moment arrived when Pinochet’s visit to the UK was confirmed. On 15 October, Garcés’ team filed a motion for a Pinochet’s arrest warrant before the Spanish National Court to extradite him to Spain to stand trial. It was sent to the UK authorities and, early the next day, Pinochet was placed under arrest. He was held in custody at The Clinic, an expensive private hospital where he had just had an operation.

It was the first time a former head of state had been arrested based on the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Garcés’ team then worked with Amnesty International to support the extradition request. The organization took a leading role in trying to ensure the then retired general would be sent to Spain to face trial, as Shoppeé explains:

“Pinochet’s detention was a milestone in the struggle for human rights. We could not let it be just a four-sentence piece in a newspaper. We had to seize the opportunity and help bring him before a court.”

UK magistrates ruled in 1999 that Pinochet should be extradited to Spain, but it never happened. The then UK Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered his release on health grounds in 2000, after a controversial medical test stated Pinochet was not fit to appear before a court and he returned to Chile a free man that same year.

Garcés and Shoppeé believe that politics came into play. However, they agree that, although the outcome of Pinochet’s detention was not as they had hoped, it was an essential turning point in the fight against for human rights. Garcés says:

“English magistrates took the process seriously and, finally, the prevalent position was the one we thought was in line with the international law. But at the end of the day the British government did not allow it to happen because of political pressure from the Chilean and Spanish governments and economic, diplomatic and other dark interests.”

“We should not forget that Pinochet died as a fugitive from justice. He was clear that international society saw him as a criminal.”

On the day of Pinochet’s return to Chile, dozens of judicial requests against him began. Shoppeé says:

“Pinochet did not come back to Chile as an innocent man – as a former president unfairly accused – but as a person guilty of human rights violations whose extradition had not been allowed for health reasons.”

“The victims’ claims were again a public issue. Chile had changed. It was no more the Chile I had visited in March 1998, where nobody wanted to speak out about the military government’s crimes against humanity. Chile had to face the atrocities of its past – a past the country was denying until Pinochet was put under custody in London.”