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.”
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.