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Is London no longer safe for the shady?

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For an ailing fallen dictator or a high-rolling Arab prince, London has long been the place to visit, with its world-class private hospitals, five-star hotels, soul-of-discretion doormen, and - above all - reputation as a safe home away from home.

For some, the arrest of former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet - in his bed at an elite London clinic, no less - means things can never be the same again.But others label the arrest a one-time event - a handy way for leaders of the 18-month-old Labor Party government to portray their foreign policy as ethically based and to take revenge against the No. 1 target of street protests back in the 1970s, when they were young.

"It is not a question of the floodgates being opened here," said Michael Byers, an international law specialist at Oxford University.

"We have (in Pinochet) one of the most horrendous criminals of the 20th century . . . here in our country. We have an extradition treaty. Spain has jurisdiction under international law. Quite frankly, I don't see what the fuss is about," he said.

If Byers is right, the rest can relax, even former African dictators privately spending some of the money they stashed in public life, or deposed officials with doubtful human rights records when they were in power.

Pinochet, 82, a regular visitor when a Conservative Party government was in power, evidently felt safe coming here again despite several warning signs.

There were the investigations by Spanish magistrates who, once he arrived, instigated the arrest, seeking his extradition on allegations of murder and torture. There was a new British government talking ethics. And there was an increasing use of national laws to cover dictators and alleged war criminals, such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

Pinochet, who remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean armed forces until March, seized power from a leftist administration in 1973. The Chilean government has said 4,299 political opponents were killed or disappeared during his 17-year-rule.

"Pinochet's arrest does have implications for others," said Sandy Ghandhi, a specialist in international human rights law at Reading University, west of London.

"London is a mecca for a lot of very unpleasant people who come here for medical treatment or other reasons," Ghandhi said. "In the past, they were confident of being utterly immune from any further prosecution."

"All those dictators who are considering that Europe is a safe haven, well, they are going to learn that they are going to have to answer for what they have done in the past - that the past is the present," said Virginia Shoppee, a specialist on Chile at the London-based human rights group Amnesty International.