In October 1998, a corrupt Spanish judge, Balthazar Garzón, issued a warrant for the arrest of Senator Augusto Pinochet, former president of Chile and staunch ally of Great Britain during the Falklands War. The 83-year old Senator, who was convalescing in a London hospital after a back operation, possessed a diplomatic passport and was in the UK on official business as a guest of HMG.
The Madrid court warrant, which was issued over the objections of the Spanish government, was based on alleged historic human rights abuses documented by Juan Garces. Garces was a prominent Spanish Marxist activist and former Revolutionary Adviser of Salvador Allende, the communist president of Chile who had fought strenuously in the early 1970s to make Chile an ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The wider political objective of the Pinochet arrest orchestrated by Garces and Garzón – who was disbarred in 2012 by the Spanish Supreme Court for recording the conversations of defence lawyers with their clients – was to establish a far-reaching and very controversial new concept in international law. Under this principle, activist Spanish lawyers acting on alleged human rights violations in any jurisdiction of which they disapproved would, in effect, have the authority to order the arrest of any individual, of any nationality, anywhere in the world – including a former head of state.
Augusto Pinochet was defended in the UK courts by a brilliant legal team led by Clare Montgomery, QC, the distinguished criminal barrister. During the protracted and sometimes tense legal manoeuvres, the House of Lords was forced to set aside its judgement for the first time in its thousand-year history when one of its judges, Lord Hoffman, failed to declare that he was associated with Amnesty International, the co-appellant alongside the Kingdom of Spain. Meanwhile a 16-month campaign by Chilean Supporters Abroad to secure the freedom of “Britain’s Only Political Prisoner” was led by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and orchestrated by Patrick Robertson, culminating in a seminal speech by Lady Thatcher at the 1999 Conservative Party conference in Blackpool.
After 503 days of house arrest, amidst unprecedented demonstrations in Virginia Waters by Chilean protesters from both sides, home secretary Jack Straw freed Senator Pinochet. On 3rd March 1999 he flew home on a Chilean air force jet to a rapturous welcome by his supporters.