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A Man of Straw | The Nation

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A Man of Straw

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In principle, I rather detest articles or items that begin or end with the words, "You heard it here first." Nonetheless, this is what I told the readers of this column on December 28, 1998, in rounding off a whole series of uncannily, nay eerily, exact predictions about the Pinochet case: "I also know Jack Straw, and I think he'll contrive a 'humane' way to let Pinochet go home. Everything Straw does is modeled on Clinton, from 'zero tolerance' for dope to school uniforms and curfews for teenagers. People who preach 'law 'n' order' for the weak are invariably soft on crime when it comes to the strong."

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Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The Nation, wrote a wide-ranging, biweekly column for the magazine...

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In the intervening period, Straw used his tenure as British Home Secretary to make the asylum laws as inelastic as possible for impoverished and desperate refugees, while allowing the defendant in the world's landmark torture and kidnapping case to sit in a country house and receive regular teatime visits from Baroness Thatcher. The Baroness never noticed or reported any signs of mental deterioration in her old pal and kept on about his courage and fighting spirit, but now we are asked to believe that the general is in such a state of decrepitude that he wouldn't or couldn't even understand the charges against him.

This is what I intended to convey by putting the word "humane" in inverted commas. The coalition of anti-Pinochet forces with which Jack Straw has to deal--that coalition that favors international human rights law--is not in favor of dragging terrified or disabled people before tribunals that are conducted in a language unknown to the defendant, as happens all the time to deportees from British shores. Nor does it favor keeping people in suspense for long periods about their fate, as has been routine for refugees from dictatorships armed by British weapons manufacturers. So it was quite witty and clever, all things being considered, for a Labor minister to discover that common decency and the quality of mercy could and should be applied this one exceptional time.

Usually, the politicized inhumanity of the British Home Office is justified by reference to the strict letter of the law. This time, the politicized lenience is directly related to the most lax interpretation of the relevant statutes. Allow me to cite Article 9.1 of the 1984 Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a convention to which the United Kingdom is a duly bound signatory: "State parties shall afford one another the greatest measure of assistance in connection with criminal proceedings brought in respect of any of the offenses referred to in article 4, including the supply of all evidence at their disposal necessary for the proceedings."

In this instance, a Spanish request for extradition has been met by an abrupt British statement that the accused is unfit to stand trial--and none of the supposed medical evidence has been made available to the plaintiffs or to the jurisdiction that represents them. "Somewhat absurd," as the Spanish judicial reply so politely understates the case.

That's disgraceful enough on its own. More outrageous still is the distinct possibility that Straw has overstated the findings of his four-person medical team. Sir John Grimley Evans, who admittedly sounds like a Conan Doyle character and who is nonetheless professor of clinical gerontology at Oxford University, has given discrepant interviews about the relationship between Pinochet's medical state and his fitness for the dock. This may be a false issue, in any case, since Pinochet always refused to meet doctors appointed by the Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón. Straw counters both Spanish and British demands for an evaluation of the medical records by saying--and here again one doffs the hat in salute to a true pseudo-humanitarian--that these cannot be examined without Pinochet's permission! Quite apart from the fact that confidential medical material is presented in court every day, how can a man supposedly suffering from dementia be expected to make such a call, let alone be the judge in his own case?

It was not only the liberal press in Britain that made satirical mileage out of Straw's hypocrisy. The pro-Pinochet Sunday Telegraph revealed what has long been common knowledge in a certain area of the left, namely that this political and not medical decision was actually taken in June of last year. The British and Spanish foreign ministers met then at the Rio summit and decided that such a highly toxic defendant could not be allowed to expire on British or Spanish soil. All that remained was the confection of an excuse that would sound good to good people.

As a matter of fact, I doubt myself whether Pinochet is capable of understanding the charges laid against him. He almost certainly thinks that torture, murder, kidnapping and intimidation are lawful and recreational activities of the ruling class, and he's almost certainly right about that. However, he wouldn't be the first psychopath to be made to stand trial. And I say this as one who cares more than Straw does for the general's civil liberties. It was wrong to keep the man cooped up for so long, with only Thatcher for company, and to deny him his day in court. It was wrong to overlook the finding made by the British Law Lords: aut dedere aut judicare, or, if you prefer, either extradite him or try him yourself. (There was nothing to stop the British courts from hearing the case without delay.)

Above all, it was criminal in the highest degree to ignore an essential submission made by the Spanish court as far back as October 19, 1998. This was a request that testimony be taken from Pinochet, whether this testimony would eventuate in a trial of himself or not. Many thousands of Chileans and dozens of other nationals want to know what happened to their relatives, in circumstances too awful to recapitulate. Pinochet can shed light on this, in cases where he is not the defendant. Or he could have. In January Judge Garzón renewed this forlorn appeal for a Comisión Rogatoria, simply to take evidence from the prime source. I doubt it will weigh much. The Blair and Clinton administrations didn't just dislike the idea of Pinochet as a defendant. They rejected the possibility of his even being a witness. And this is part of the measure of their own complicity, which is why we ought to hope that one day they get justice, too.

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