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Pinochet: What's at stake

It's arguable that the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet did some good for his country - turning it away from socialism and instituting free-market reforms. Lots of Chileans think that, or they wouldn't be clamoring for his release from British custody.

But it's undeniable Mr. Pinochet's means of bending Chile to his will were abominable. Thousands were tortured, killed, or "disappeared" in the opening stages of his 17-year rule, which ended in 1990. When Pinochet stepped down, he retained a seat for life in Chile's Senate, giving him a shield of diplomatic immunity.

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A crusading Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzon, challenged that immunity. He determined to nail the Chilean for his crimes against humanity - including a number of Spaniards killed in Chile during Pinochet's terror. His petition to extradite Pinochet to Spain for trial is currently in limbo, awaiting a rehearing before London's Law Lords. The legal outcome is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that the charges against Pinochet aren't being shrugged off or forgotten. We doubt his extended legal ordeal presages a flood of unjustified cross-border indictments, as some worry. Instead, it should serve as another step toward greater accountability for acts that violate universally acknowledged standards of right and wrong.

That, after all, is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is all about. Ditto the tribunals under way for atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda. Blatant violations of rights must carry penalties. Pinochet's is an important test case for that proposition.

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