SHOULD PEOPLE WHO have committed high crimes -- murder, torture -- as political acts, be permitted to escape justice by taking a refuge behind a national frontier? The question is being increasingly asked in a time of international emphasis on human rights -- of which surely the most fundamental is the right to be free of personal bodily abuse. But it is almost a matter of definition that people who commit such abuses in conformity with official policy are not likely to be prosecuted effectively by courts under that same government's jurisdiction. Circumstances do arise, however, in which they come within the reach, if not the grasp, of a foreign state.

In one current case, for instance, the United States is pressing the government of Chile and the Chilean court system, which is dependent on the government, to prosecute three military officers indicted here in the assassination here of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier. The Letelier murder questionably was an act of political vengenance ordered by the Chilean government, and the United States has a variety of political and economic sanctions it can bring to bear, as it should, to see that justice is done.

In a second case, the father and sister of a Paraguayan youth tortured to death in Paraguay, who now live in the United States, are searching for ways to use the American court system to prosecute the person they hold responsible for the youth's death -- he is a man who came to this country after the boy died. To escape prosecution, he has been trying to return to Paraguay where, he presumably knows very well, the government can be counted on to spare the people who do its dirty work the full weight of the law.

In the Letelier case, it is essentially a question of applying political pressure on a foreign court system and a foreign government. No matter how corrupt their courts, few nations appreciate such pressure. The authorities in Santiago now threaten to respond with a tightening of police rule. This requires clear-headed political judegment on the part of American officials. The second case, however, seems easier. Authentic political refugees deserve a haven in this country, but political murderers and torturers do not. Americans diminish their claim to bring others to justice elsewhere if they do not do what they can, within the law, to set an example on their own soil.