LONDON -- In a stunning decision, Britain's highest court unanimously reversed itself yesterday and granted Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet a new hearing in his bid to avoid extradition to Spain for alleged human rights crimes.
The House of Lords said a judge who had ruled against Pinochet failed to disclose his ties to Amnesty International, one of the groups leading the legal charge against the ex-dictator.
The reversal effectively moved the case against Pinochet back to square one, slowed Spain's attempts at extradition and embarrassed Britain's legal establishment.
It was the first time the highest court ever reversed itself and, indeed, ever even reviewed one of its decisions.
A new hearing will likely be held Jan. 18 with another set of Law Lords, as Pinochet stakes his claim that as a former head of state he has sovereign immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during his 1973-1990 rule. If the new panel rules in his favor, Pinochet, 83, could be free to fly home to Chile.
Amnesty International tie
In their appeal, Pinochet's lawyers zeroed in on Lord Justice Leonard Hoffmann, who cast the tie-breaking vote in last month's 3-2 decision that left Pinochet vulnerable to extradition. The lawyers claimed that Hoffman should not have been allowed to rule in the case because he was director of Amnesty International's fund-raising arm, while his wife has worked at the group's headquarters since 1977.
"What judges must not do once they have accepted a post with a charity is to hear a case touching on the very subject matter that charity has sworn to abolish," one of Pinochet's lawyers, Clare Montgomery, argued during a two-day hearing.
"He should be uninfluenced and seen to be uninfluenced by passion or factions. He should not be seen to be in passionate opposition of a defendant," she added.
In the 5-0 ruling, Lord Justice Nicolas Browne-Wilkinson said Hoffmann should have withdrawn from the case. "I am satisfied that the earlier decision of this house cannot stand and must be set aside," he said.
Britain's top judge, Lord Derry Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, also delivered a stern warning to the country's top judges, writing that they must declare possible conflicts and withdraw from cases where they could be accused of bias.
"We must make every effort to ensure that such a state of affairs could not occur again," Irvine wrote.
Amnesty International tried to put the best face on the reversal as its chairman, Andy McAtee, told Britain's Press Association, "Augusto Pinochet has very inventive lawyers. They are very good, very effective. They will make this a long case, one that is hard for him to lose."
The case was ignited Oct. 16 when Pinochet was arrested in London while recuperating from back surgery. He already has appeared in a British courtroom after Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled that extradition proceedings could begin.
Spain is among several countries seeking Pinochet's extradition for crimes alleged to have been committed during his rule, when more than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared, and tens of thousands fled Chile.
Pinochet was said to be delighted by the latest twist in the case. But he remained under armed guard in a suburban mansion.
Pub Date: 12/18/98