Pinochet victims set to sue dictator in British courts

Chilean victims of the Pinochet regime are considering suing the former dictator through the civil courts, following last week's House of Lords victory.

Legal advisers to the Chilean exiles say that although the Law Lords' decision concerned a criminal matter, it extends to civil courts and could open the door to civil suits by any victims of human rights abuses living in the UK.

Dr Michael Byers, a fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, said he was keen to see UK-based exiles take civil action against the former dictator.

“I personally think that they should do it, because that would be a very important test case, there being no immunity problem anymore and Pinochet being such a perfect defendant. If there's a good test case they can maybe help future victims.”

Fiona McKay, legal officer for the anti-torture organisation Redress, agreed a personal injury suit was a possibility, but warned that Britain's six-year statute of limitations may undermine the Chileans' claims. Pinochet's abuses occurred in the 1970s, well outside the statute of limitations. But a Chilean claimant may be able to argue that their suffering is ongoing and that, because many of Pinochet's victims are still listed as “disappeared”, an injury had occurred within the last six years.

Michael Anderson, director of studies at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, said the ruling means any victim of human rights abuses could sue former heads of states for damages.

“The Pinochet decision may open the doors for a whole new type of tort litigation in the UK based on human rights abuses worldwide,” he said.

McKay said human rights groups throughout Europe would be “looking for opportunities” to pursue similar action in their own jurisdictions.