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TRYING PINOCHET IS NOT WORTH THE COST

There is no disputing a British court's logic that crimes like torture and kidnap are the methods of common criminals, not heads of state, and should be prosecuted as such.

But while nothing would serve the cause of justice more than the conviction of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for such atrocities, Britain still has a chance to look at the larger questions posed by this troubling case.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government should take that opportunity to turn down Spain's extradition request. Simply put, forcing the ailing 83-year-old former dictator to stand trial in Spain is not worth the risk in terms of the precedent it would set or the upheaval it would spur in Chile.

Chileans are still trying to get a firm grip on democracy after Pinochet's 1973 military coup that ousted a Marxist regime, with U.S. support. His subsequent 17-year reign was marked by torture and murder in a ruthless bid to rid the country of leftists.

Yet Chileans have managed to come to grips with that, so far. Democracy was restored in a 1988 vote that resulted in Pinochet stepping down two years later. Despite his continuing presence as a "senator for life," Chile has managed to mend itself, so much so that President Clinton praised its democratic reforms at a summit this year and called it a model for Latin America.

Prosecuting Pinochet could unravel all of that. It would send right-wing supporters into the streets and reopen wounds that could tear the society apart.

Beyond that is the vexing question of what this case could lead to if it means that any world leader could be extradited any time he travels abroad if some third country accuses him of a crime. Would that mean that critics of the U.S. decision to bomb a suspected terrorist plant in Sudan could try to extradite President Clinton and try him?

Letting countries work out such side deals on extradition would make legitimate world leaders fearful of ever leaving home and practically cripple international relations.

The better solution would be an international criminal court that could step back and look at the bigger picture while also imposing uniform standards of justice.

Unfortunately, the United States has opted out of efforts to create such a court, fearing it might be used against U.S. soldiers. That fear is overblown. If established, such a court could limit prosecutions to those who are unquestionably guilty of gross crimes against humanity. It would prevent the harassment of legitimate heads of state.

Beyond that, an impartial international tribunal might also be better able to assess when a prosecution does more harm than good. That is something Britain alone now must decide in the Pinochet case. If the Blair administration is wise, it will see that sending this tyrant to stand trial in Spain is not worth the potential cost.

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