LONDON — Britain's highest court on Wednesday rejected former dictator Augusto Pinochet's claim of immunity from prosecution for human rights crimes committed while he ruled Chile, but it drastically reduced the charges that can be brought against him and the chances that he will be extradited to Spain for trial.
In a 6-1 decision, the Law Lords upheld Pinochet's arrest here in October and determined that he cannot escape judgment solely because he is a former head of state--a landmark ruling for human rights lawyers trying to bring brutal dictators to justice.
But the decision was much narrower than one issued by another panel of Law Lords four months ago, which was thrown out after the revelation that a judge who ruled against Pinochet had ties to the human rights group Amnesty International. The Law Lords are members of the upper house of Parliament, and panels of them hear specific cases.
This time, the judges said that Pinochet can be tried only for torture offenses committed after Sept. 29, 1988, when Britain signed the International Convention Against Torture. Chile, Spain, the U.S. and 108 other nations are also signatories.
"The result of this decision is to eliminate the majority of the charges leveled against Sen. Pinochet by the government of Spain and relied upon as the basis for extraditing him," Lord Chief Justice Nicolas Browne-Wilkinson explained.
He said the only remaining charges were an isolated allegation of torture on June 24, 1989, and "certain conspiracies to torture" after September 1988.
In light of that, Browne-Wilkinson took the unusual step of recommending that Home Secretary Jack Straw "reconsider" his decision to allow the extradition request to proceed through the courts.
Lawyers for Pinochet responded quickly Wednesday afternoon by appealing Straw's December decision. They returned to court seeking a writ of habeas corpus, and the magistrates gave Straw until Monday to decide what he is going to do.
Pinochet ousted elected Socialist President Salvador Allende in a bloody coup in 1973 and ruled Chile for 17 years. More than 3,000 people died or disappeared during his reign, including dozens of Spanish citizens.
When the 83-year-old Pinochet was arrested on a Spanish warrant in October, it was at a London clinic where he was recovering from back surgery. His case has polarized public opinion in Chile and the political elites of Britain.
The Law Lords' mixed verdict allowed both camps to claim partial victory. Human rights lawyers hailed the precedent-setting decision on immunity, while Pinochet supporters celebrated the reduction in possible charges and saw hope for his eventual release.
"The most important result is that the Lords rejected Pinochet's bid for a blanket immunity and said that the case should go forward," said Reed Brody of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Brody criticized the limits the Law Lords imposed on the case, saying that "up to now, for the purpose of extradition, courts have looked at the law when the extradition was requested and not what it was 20 years ago. . . . In addition to ruling on immunity, they almost sat as extradition magistrates."
Outside the House of Lords, Chilean exiles cheered the fact that Pinochet would remain in British custody at least for the time being. Chilean author Ariel Dorfman, whose play "Death and the Maiden" was about persecution under Pinochet, jabbed the air and shouted "Justicia!"
And Briton Sheila Cassidy, who was tortured in Chile, said: "One case is enough for a wicked man to be extradited and charged. . . . I would rather see the nit-picking intricacies of British law than see the law suspended as it was in Chile."
On the other side, a member of Pinochet's legal team, Fernando Barros, proclaimed victory.
"I doubt Pinochet will be extradited to Spain," he said, noting that there's only one specific case of alleged torture.
In Chile, as has become customary after developments in the Pinochet case, President Eduardo Frei went on national television to announce the government's reaction.
The Law Lords' decision represented a victory for the legal arguments advanced by representatives of the Chilean government, which emphasized "the defense of principles and not of persons," Frei said.
The center-left government has found itself in the uncomfortable position of working alongside right-wing rivals trying to win Pinochet's release. It has promised to hold Pinochet accountable for his regime's abuses if he returns to Chile, though human rights advocates and even some allies of the president say the power of the military and the right makes any punishment highly unlikely.
"We defended state immunity," Frei said. "That immunity is not the same as impunity. Any Chilean ex-chief of state can be judged in our country. Chilean justice has accepted an increasing number of criminal complaints against Sen. Pinochet, and he will have to respond to them upon his return."
Pinochet's case has undergone several about-faces already. In October, the High Court ruled that Pinochet had immunity as a former head of state. In November, another High Court panel overturned that ruling in what was hailed as a warning to dictators around the world that they will one day have to face justice.
But in December, that decision too was annulled because of the links between Lord Hoffmann and Amnesty International, which had given evidence against Pinochet.
Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.
* DECISION PRAISED: L.A.'s Chileans cheered the British ruling but were disappointed at its limits. B3