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Originally published October 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 7, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Asylum hard to find for strongmen

Just last year, Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia's quiet death in exile here caught the attention of few people outside Guatemala, where he had presided...

The New York Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — Just last year, Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia's quiet death in exile here caught the attention of few people outside Guatemala, where he had presided over a ruthless period of civil war in which 37 people were burned to death during a siege at Spain's embassy. Spain tried to extradite him in 2005 on human-rights charges, but had gotten nowhere.

A tranquil death in a foreign land, at the age of 81: Such a bookend to a life of brutality or corruption was long guaranteed for Latin America's exiled strongmen.

Until now.

The tradition of guaranteed asylum for fallen leaders is, in fact, coming under siege throughout the region, and the surprising extradition of Alberto Fujimori last month to Peru from Chile could be a turning point.

Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti and Venezuela are all discussing ways of bringing former leaders out of exile to face human-rights or corruption charges, and legal experts expect these various efforts to be energized by a ruling by Chile's Supreme Court ordering that Fujimori be sent to a jail cell in Peru to await trial.

The Fujimori ruling dovetails with a brand of legal theory that gained force in the 1990s with a British ruling that put Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile under house arrest there pending extradition to Spain. He was visiting Britain, rather than in exile there, having stepped down as dictator with an understanding that he wouldn't be prosecuted in his own country.

But Britain's House of Lords decided he could nevertheless be tried in Spain to face torture charges when Spain sought him.

Pinochet eventually won the right to be returned home to Chile — where, in a new political environment, he lived out his remaining years fighting to stay out of jail. He died in Chile last December, yet last week his family was brought under a legal cloud, accused of living off money he had secreted abroad while in office. Pinochet's widow, children and former associates were released on bail Saturday, two days after their arrest on corruption charges.

Meanwhile, international courts had begun extraditing leaders like Jean Kambanda of Rwanda and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia to face international tribunals on genocide-related charges; these actions established clear precedents that some atrocities against civilians offended not just the laws of a country, but also international standards of human rights.

Yet these precedents also encouraged governments to insist that their former leaders accused of despotism or thievery be returned for trial, and made other countries reluctant to keep rewarding these disgraced leaders with a comfortable life.

The change in atmosphere is hitting Latin America with particular force, because the right of political asylum for former heads of state in the region was once viewed as sacred.

In practice, it often played out like this: A caudillo, or strongman, amassed such power or abused opponents to such an extent that he was threatened with rebellion or overthrown. At that point, he made his escape abroad.

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More often than not, it seemed, the United States intervened, either quietly or publicly.

Its officials would broker a deal that would deliver the ousted ruler with a minimum of upheaval to his country of exile, all in the interest of averting an even worse political crisis and of creating a semblance of economic and social stability. Some countries, like Panama, even specialized in welcoming the autocrats into their midst.

That explains why Raoul Cedras of Haiti and Jorge Serrano Elias of Guatemala, both of whom have successfully fended off extradition requests so far, find themselves living comfortably in Panama.

So does Abdala Bucaram of Ecuador, who has been sought at home on corruption charges.

As in the past, extradition sometimes hews closely to U.S. interests, even in a region where democratic government is now more prevalent than dictatorship.

Panama, for example, is now captivated by the struggle that its former president, Manuel Noriega, is waging to avoid extradition to France from the United States, an option American officials prefer to returning him to his home country.

Other extradition efforts are rooted in the lingering anger over the techniques some governments used to strengthen their grip on power — particularly in Argentina and Chile while the military was in charge, and in Peru when Fujimori led a brutal counterinsurgency fight.

For instance, Maria Estela de Peron, the former Argentine president known as Isabel, is in Spain fending off an extradition request related to the activities of right-wing paramilitary death squads accused of killing at least 1,500 people. Most of those deaths occurred when she was in power, from 1974 to 1976.

She was then overthrown, followed by years of brutal repression under outright military rule.

Institutions in Chile, which also are dealing with the ghosts of repression during the 1970s and 80s, were emboldened by Pinochet's extradition battle, even though he never did go to prison.

Scholars draw a clear connection between that battle and the decision by Chile to extradite Fujimori.

"Fujimori, like Pinochet, was once considered invincible," said Daniel Wilkinson, deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. "Now the definition of invincibility has been shaken."

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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