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Calling time on tyranny

Chile's extradition of former president Alberto Fujimori back to Peru to stand trial on allegations of death squad killings and corruption shows that the world is becoming a smaller place for people who commit atrocities.

Until recently, if you killed one person, you went to jail, but if you killed thousands, you got a comfortable exile with your bank account in a foreign country. The Nuremberg trials established the legal principle that there should be no immunity for perpetrators of the gravest outrages, no matter who they were or where their crimes were committed. Yet until Britain's arrest of General Augusto Pinochet of Chile in October 1998, on a Spanish warrant, few states had the courage to put these noble principles into practice.

The arrest of Pinochet, who died last December in Chile, inspired others to bring their tormentors to justice, particularly in Latin America, where victims challenged the transitional arrangements of the 1980s and 1990s that allowed perpetrators of atrocities to go unpunished and, often, to remain in power. Argentina's supreme court struck down immunity laws for former officials, and dozens now face investigation and trial for crimes during the 1976-83 dictatorship. Earlier this month, a Uruguayan court approved the trial of Juan Maria Bordaberry, the dictator of Uruguay from 1973-76, on allegations of the murder of opposition leaders.

Pinochet's London arrest also strengthened a new international movement to end impunity for the worst abuses. After the creation of UN tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the UN established the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and serious war crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so.

Even in Africa, where people have long been victims of cycles of atrocity and impunity, international justice is on the march. Senegal has now pledged to prosecute the exiled former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, after refusing to try him in 2001 and refusing to extradite him to Belgium in 2005. Earlier this year, a trial began for Charles Taylor of Liberia before the UN-backed special court for Sierra Leone. The ICC is now investigating alleged crimes in Darfur, Uganda, Congo and the Central African Republic.

A number of safe havens remain for those accused of abuses. Idi Amin of Uganda died peacefully in Saudi Arabia. (A Saudi diplomat told Human Rights Watch that "Bedouin hospitality'' meant that once someone was welcomed as a guest in your tent, you did not turn him out.) Mengistu Haile Mariam, alleged to have run a "red terror" campaign in Ethiopia targeting tens of thousands of political opponents, now enjoys the protection of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Indeed, for five years, Japan protected Fujimori from extradition on the grounds that he was a Japanese dual citizen. Then Fujimori made the mistake of traveling to Chile.

One of the safest place for those accused of war crimes to hide may now be the United States, which steadfastly refuses to consider prosecution of those such as Donald Rumsfeld, alleged to have approved criminal interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, or CIA managers for their roles in the "waterboarding" of detainees or the "rendition" of suspects to countries where they were tortured. Just this week, Germany, faced with the US's refusal, dropped a request to the US to extradite 13 suspected CIA agents accused of abducting a German citizen and sending him to be tortured in a secret jail in Afghanistan. Washington has also refused to cooperate with Italian investigators who want to question 26 CIA agents in connection with the Milan kidnapping of a Muslim cleric who was allegedly sent to Egypt and tortured.

The new rule may be that if you are accused of human rights crimes, you can hide but you can't run.

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