THE LEGAL morass gripping Augusto Pinochet may serve the old dictator right and make human rights advocates feel good. But it augurs ill for the rule of law or an orderly world.
A Spanish investigating judge wants to try General Pinochet in Spain for crimes he committed against humanity when he ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. The former president was arrested in Britain.
An appeals court ruled that the 83-year-old general could not be extradited because the crimes in question occurred before Britain ratified an international convention outlawing torture in 1988.
Dealing with 35 amended charges alleging torture after that date, Magistrate Ronald Bartle, the lowest level of judge in Britain, ruled Friday that General Pinochet be extradited to Spain. That's where it stands.
But not for long. This is subject to appeal. When the process is completed, if the extradition stands, the British home secretary must rule again.
No international tribunal has indicted General Pinochet, as such tribunals have indicted Serb, Croatian and Rwandan butchers. No international process is at work. Spain's government appears terrified at the danger to Spanish-Chilean economic relations, but refuses to meddle. The Chilean population appears passionately split.
If a prosecutor in Spain can do this to a former ruler of Chile visiting Britain, what's to stop a counterpart anywhere from doing it to any controversial figure from somewhere else? Could President Clinton, former presidents or national security advisers travel?
The Chilean government says that 3,197 people died or disappeared after General Pinochet deposed President Salvador Allende in 1973. A trial in Chile is in order, though doubtful while the army remains powerful.
To send General Pinochet to Spain, however, would be to play games without rules. The situation argues for an international criminal court, which has been adopted by international conference but not ratified into existence or accepted by the U.S. government.
In the absence of such a court, the proceedings against General Pinochet set precedents for anarchy and do violence to the ideal of a world ruled by law.