As portrayed in the BBC series Pinochet in Suburbia, General Augusto Pinochet arrived to England in early October, 1998 for a back operation (he had surgery for a herniated disc at the London Bridge Hospital) – 500 days later, the British High Court granted Pinochet immunity from prosecution as a former Head of State. In late October 1998, when Pinochet was taken into custody, the Metropolitan Police said they where acting on a warrant from Spain where Pinochet was investigated over the deaths of Spanish citizens during the period of 1973 and 1990.
The 500 days Pinochet remained under house arrest in England are a riddle of diplomatic and political manoeuvring. It was also one of the most expensive extradition cases ever – Dark Matter Politics can report the Pinochet case cost British taxpayers a staggering £2,204,595 - prosecuting barristers on the case alone were paid £425,077. (complementing source: BBC News)
The political manoeuvring began shortly after the arrest, when Eduardo Frei, Chile’s president, announced a suspension of all official visits and meetings with UK ministers, an end to all flights to the Falkland Islands and the governments’ intent to fight a legal battle to ensure the release of Pinochet. Frei’s reaction was not surprising as it was a decision that appeased key elements of the Chilean military as well as powerful and influential supporters of Pinochet.
More importantly, the decision was driven by the belief of self-determination and the sovereignty of the Chilean people to decide the fate of one of its' citizens. As Colonel Alfredo Ewing stated "As a result, the task of defending what the president (Eduardo Frei) has called a question of principle and what the President of the Supreme Court has said amounts to stamping on our sovereignty is incomplete." However, the choice of Chile’s courts and citizens is limited by the fact that Pinochet provided himself and other members of the Army with immunity from prosecution (based on an amnesty law passed in 1978) as well as naming himself as senator-for-life, as part of the 1980 constitution he pushed forward while in control of the country. Although the1980 constitution was approved by 75% of people, it was regarded as a highly irregular plebiscite and process - there was no constituent assembly or public debate on its contents.
Furthermore, the question of sovereignty clashes with the principle of universal jurisdiction; which has been applied to this case. Wikipedia defines universal jurisdiction for Dark Matter Politics as “a controversial principle in international law whereby states claim criminal jurisdiction over persons whose alleged crimes were committed outside the boundaries of the prosecuting state, regardless of nationality, country of residence, or any other relation with the prosecuting country.”
The process of establishing a legal course of action for Pinochet in Chile has been slow – although some eighty Pinochet-era officers have been indicted in recent years, including former CNI (secret police) agents who were given life sentences for political murders committed in 1986. In August 11th, 2000, Chile's Supreme Court announced that they had voted to strip Pinochet of his senatorial immunity. The ruling fell short of requesting medical examinations to establish whether the former military dictator will stand trial. This decision was followed by a ruling the 10th of January, 2006 which strips Pinochet of his legal immunity against trial for the killing of two bodyguards of Salvador Allende. Although unlikely, this ruling might see Pinochet prosecuted by local courts and its fellow citizens in the near future (on other charges related to possible cases of tax evasion and embezzlement).
It is clear no conditions can be placed on obtaining justice for those who suffered most during Pinochet’s rule, however, the fate of Pinochet should lie with the Chilean people and Chilean legal institutions. Without a doubt, it will be a slow and politically charged process; one of continued painful introspection; but one that is absolutely necessary to ensure Chile continues to establish a shared historical conscious that focuses on truth and social economic development for all. (darkmatterpolitics.com, March 2006).