Vatican confirms its intervention in extradition case of Gen Pinochet

The vatican yesterday confirmed that it had intervened in the ongoing legal wrangle about the fate of the former Chilean dictator…

The vatican yesterday confirmed that it had intervened in the ongoing legal wrangle about the fate of the former Chilean dictator, Gen Augusto Pinochet, currently detained in the United Kingdom while waiting for a court to decide whether he can be extradited to Spain to face charges of human rights violations. Senior Vatican spokesman, Dr Joaquin Navarro-Vals, told reporters that the Holy See had written to the British government about Gen Pinochet's arrest but declined to give details of the Vatican's intervention, other than to confirm it had come about as a result of a request from the current Chilean government: "I can confirm that a diplomatic step was taken by the Holy See as was announced in the House of Lords yesterday by Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean . . . The letter will be published at the opportune moment with the agreement of the government of the United Kingdom and in accordance with international protocol . . .

"The Holy See's interest stems from a request from the current Chilean government . . . which in many international forums has asserted its right to both territorial and juridical sovereignty", said Dr Navarro-Vals.

The latter part of the Vatican spokesman's statement would seem to give credence to speculation from the former British chancellor of the exchequer, Mr Norman Lamont, who on Thursday suggested that the Vatican's intervention reflected the Chilean government's view that allegations of human rights violations made against Gen Pinochet concerned only Chile and the Chilean judiciary.

If such speculation was to prove correct, then it would confirm previous Vatican policy which has called for the perpetrators of serious crimes to be tried in the land where those crimes were allegedly committed. Chile and its former dictator have already proved to be a source of controversy in this pontificate. Many Catholics were critical of the Pope when he stood beside Gen Pinochet on the balcony of the Moneda Palace in Santiago during a 1987 papal visit to Chile. Then, as now, the Vatican argued that critical and constructive dialogue was better than no dialogue at all, denying that the Pope's presence on the Moneda balcony represented the tacit legitimisation of the Pinochet regime.


Human rights campaigners in London said they were shocked yesterday by reports that the Vatican had adopted a pro-Pinochet line, pointing out that in a homily in December the Pope had said "blood has stained the hands of those responsible for genocide and they have to be arrested".

Following that line of thought to its conclusion, Mr Carlos Reyes, president of the London-based human rights group, Chile Democratico, said he was amazed by the Vatican's intervention particularly when thousands of Catholics had been tortured and exiled from Chile during Gen Pinochet's regime. "Pinochet has been indicted many times for crimes against humanity, so how can the Pope defend a person like that?" he said.

The British government's reply to the letter pointed out that Gen Pinochet's fate was a legal matter that would be resolved by the courts. Meanwhile, the Vatican's reported stance appeared at odds with comments made by the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Basil Hume, who said in a radio interview last year: "There are some actions, such as torture or genocide, that are so wrong that no one who commits or authorises them should have total immunity. They should be made accountable for their actions somewhere or other, and I feel that very importantly."

Urging the Catholic Church to hold to the "Hume line", the director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations in London, Mr Ian Linden, suggested that politicised Cardinals might have manoeuvred the Pope into a pro-Pinochet stance. "It would be an emphasis on forgiveness above justice, when clearly the Church stands for justice and human rights," he said.