Will Castro be next in the dock?

Cuba's dictator is just as bad as Pinochet, argues the right. Maurice Walshweighs the evidence

If Pinochet gets away with it, can we look forward to the possibility of more cases being brought against foreign dictators? If nothing else, the Law Lords have set a legal precedent. And if there is a case against Pinochet, shouldn't there, asks the right, also be a case against Fidel Castro? Both, after all, were - and, in Castro's case, are - Latin American dictators, ruling countries of similar size. In 1980, the population of Cuba was 11.1 million; the population of Chile, 9.7 million.

Over the years, independent human rights monitors have found that violations of rights to privacy, freedom of expression, assembly and due process of law are consistent and systematic in Cuba. Castro's biographer, Tad Szulc, has written that "final decisions concerning crime and punishment in Cuba are Fidel Castro's personal province". But although there is a clear link between Castro's personal leadership and the repression of dissent in Cuba, charges similar to those made against Pinochet would have to be based on crimes subject to universal jurisdiction, such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The evidence against Castro might fall into three broad categories. One would be the executions of former soldiers from the Batista regime carried out immediately after the revolution in Cuba. The revolutionaries described this as the "cleansing" of the defeated army. Many of the prisoners shot by firing squads were judged within a few hours by special tribunals supervised by Che Guevara.

In response to American accusations of a bloodbath, Castro declared that "revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts but on moral conviction". But within a few months, after acknowledging that 550 people had been executed, he ordered the firing squads to stop. At the time, the revolution was widely popular and many of those executed had a reputation for brutality.

As the revolution was consolidated, people left Cuba in droves. State security agents were on the lookout for anyone regarded as a counter-revolutionary. In the mid-1960s Castro himself admitted to 25,000 political prisoners. Some anti- Castro groups put the figure at 60,000. Torture was institutionalised and several accounts leave little doubt that the Cuban version - despite the rhetoric about the "new man" - did not fight shy of the malevolent ingenuity that is the trademark of its practitioners. It included electric shocks, the incarceration of prisoners in dark isolation cells the size of coffins, and beatings to extract information or confessions. Thousands of political prisoners were released in the 1970s. The Cuban Committee for Human Rights, established more than 20 years ago, estimated that in 1991 there were 3,000 political prisoners; some observers believe the number may now have dropped to 500.

The third possible basis for charges against Castro under international law might be found in specific incidents such as the drowning of 41 people in July 1994, when a tugboat of passengers trying to get to Florida was rammed off the Cuban coast. Castro said it was an accident. Amnesty International said the survivors and their families were harassed and intimidated when they tried to commemorate the incident.

Shortly after Pinochet's arrest, a human rights group affiliated to one of the main Cuban exile groups in Miami, the Cuban American National Foundation, filed a complaint in Spain accusing Castro of genocide and terrorism - the same charges levelled against Pinochet. They presented cases of 120 people who, they said, had been tortured or executed or had died in police custody in Cuba. And they added the names of 18,000 people who, they alleged, had been killed or disappeared since the victorious revolution of 1959.

The Spanish prosecutor ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support such charges. The incidents did not constitute "a systematic pattern of extermination of a group". He added that "not all dictatorships necessarily lead to acts of genocide".

One reason why it has been possible to bring a case against Pinochet is because - contrary to many assertions - Chile's reckoning with its past has been exemplary. In 1990, after an imperfect democracy was re-established, a commission, including some who had been at least sympathetic to the dictator, investigated Pinochet's rule. It produced two rigorously sourced volumes in February 1991.

Without once mentioning Pinochet by name, it concluded that 1,158 people had died at the hands of agents of the state or others operating from political motives and that 957 had disappeared. The victims were classified by age, profession, region and political affiliation. It was acknowledged at the time that there were other deaths and disappearances yet to be as firmly established.

There is no comparably agreed mass of detail against Castro. It may be, as one of Castro's most famous political prisoners, the poet Armando Valladares, had it, that when the truth comes out "mankind will feel the revulsion it felt when the crimes of Stalin were brought to light". Yet not even the US, the most implacable enemy of the Cuban revolution, has accused Castro of overseeing sustained mass killings. Rather, the charges consistently levelled against Cuba are concentrated on the deadening, suffocating efficiency of the repression: last year, Human Rights Watch placed Cuba at the top of its list of states violating human rights in Latin America not because of the viciousness of any individual crimes, but because of the depth and the breadth of repression.

So it's unlikely that Castro will follow Pinochet into the dock. Taking account of this timely forewarning of the perils of losing power and indulging in foreign travel, it's more likely that he will, like Franco, die at home and let history be his judge.

This article appears in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?