Ironies abound in the British decision to let former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet go home for “compassionate” reasons. Compassion, of course, was notably scarce under Mr. Pinochet’s iron-fisted rule. It is tempting to argue that the general deserves nothing less than the justice he meted out to the thousands who were killed, tortured or “disappeared” during the 17 years he was Chile’s supreme leader. That would be wrong: Denying him justice only compounds the sins that were committed, it does not rectify them. Let Mr. Pinochet go home. Chile should deal with its past. More importantly, a powerful legal precedent has been established: Dictators can no longer hide behind the fiction of sovereign immunity to shield them from their crimes.

Mr. Pinochet’s legal drama began in October 1998, when he went to Britain for treatment of a back ailment. Traveling as a senator for life, who had been awarded legal immunity by an act of Parliament before he relinquished power, he must have felt invulnerable. Yet Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon was not cowed. He issued a warrant for Mr. Pinochet’s arrest and extradition to face trial on 35 counts of torture and conspiracy to torture. Although the alleged human-rights abuses were committed in Chile, Spain, along with other European nations, believes it has the legal right to try the general for crimes perpetrated against its citizens.

Mr. Pinochet claimed that, as a former head of state, he was immune from prosecution for those acts and could not be extradited. In two separate stunning decisions — the first was overturned after allegations of bias against one of the judges — Britain’s Law Lords disagreed, holding that international treaties override the principle of sovereign immunity.

In the wake of those rulings, British Home Secretary Jack Straw announced this week that Mr. Pinochet had been found unfit to stand trial for health reasons. Three medical doctors and a neuropsychologist concluded that the cumulative effects of two strokes, diabetes and a pacemaker had left their marks on the 84-year-old. Mr. Straw decided that Mr. Pinochet would be unable to assist properly in his own defense. In those circumstances, he could not get a fair trial and should be given “compassionate release” and allowed to go home. Concerned parties have a week to file their legal protests.

The decision to send Mr. Pinochet home is convenient — and correct. Convenient because no one — including the British, Spanish and Chilean governments — wanted to see the general put on trial in a foreign court. (The Spanish prosecutor, Mr. Garzon, has been in constant conflict with his government over this case.) A hearing, it was feared, would unleash passions in Chile and risk destabilizing the country, and would damage relations between London, Madrid and Santiago.

But governments have an obligation to do what is just, especially when the dispute is over human rights. If Mr. Pinochet is sick and unable to follow proceedings and assist in his defense, then he could not have a fair trial. The only question is how sick the general actually is. Out of concern for Mr. Pinochet’s privacy, the British government declined to make the physicians’ findings public; and reportedly, he himself declined British urgings to let the Spanish government see the report.

Nor does Mr. Pinochet’s return to Chile necessarily end this dispute. Chile maintains that it is the proper venue for any trial of the former president. Chilean President Eduardo Frei has said that Mr. Pinochet might be tried on charges of genocide, torture and “disappearing” some 3,000 of his political opponents. If he is truly ill, then a trial is unlikely, although the strength of his support in Chile makes it unlikely anyway.

Most Chileans would just as soon put that dark period behind them. But the timing of the decision will force the country to face its past. This weekend, the country will vote in a runoff for president. The race pits one of the general’s former assistants against a one-time dissident. Fighting for his rights in London, Mr. Pinochet has not been an issue in the campaign. That all changes now. Some argue that the release casts a shadow over the former aide, Mr. Joacquin Lavin, by reminding people of his old job. Others say the return raises fears that his opponent, Mr. Ricardo Lagos, could dig up a past best left undisturbed. The race is too close to call.

But Mr. Pinochet’s case will live on because a powerful precedent has been set. Heads of state like to believe that their power renders them immune from any responsibility for acts they committed while in office. This case ends that fiction. Now, no leader can pretend that he or she is above the law. That lesson is only reinforced when the general is given the rights he allegedly denied others.

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