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World: British Judges Decide Fate Of Chile's Pinochet Tomorrow

  • Ben Partridge

London, 23 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - British judges will rule tomorrow on the fate of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who is under house arrest in Britain following a bid to extradite him to Spain to face trial for alleged crimes against humanity.

Seven senior judges will announce whether the 83-year-old former general has immunity from prosecution or whether moves to extradite him to Spain can go ahead. The long-awaited judgement is widely seen as a test case of international human rights law.

Spanish authorities are seeking Pinochet's extradition to face charges of torture, hostage-taking and conspiracy to murder allegedly committed by his military junta in the 1970s and 1980s.

If the British judges rule in his favor, it is expected that Pinochet will be flown home to Chile within a matter of hours. If they rule against him, he will have to remain in Britain as his lawyers submit further legal challenges to the extradition moves.

Pinochet argues that he is immune from prosecution as a former head of state, and that Spain has no legal right to bring such proceedings against him. The Santiago government has also argued against his extradition, saying that Chile is the only country in which criminal proceedings could be brought against him.

Pinochet, who seized power in a 1973 coup that ousted the democratically-elected Marxist president Salvador Allende, ruled Chile for 17 years. His opponents say at least 3,000 people, among them Spanish citizens, were killed or disappeared in that time.

Pinochet was detained last October while being treated in a London clinic for a minor back problem. Since then he has been on bail, confined to living in a rented house near London. He repeated his insistence at the weekend that he is "completely innocent."

The British decision to detain Pinochet has reopened painful wounds in Santiago where his supporters and opponents have staged demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.

Chilean President Eduardo Frei, who leads a center right coalition government, has appealed to people to remain calm.

Security at the British embassy in Santiago has been tightened amid fears of a repeat of last year's violent protests when an initial ruling by a panel of British judges went against Pinochet.

Several Chilean senators have flown to Britain, and are expected to formally protest if the judgment goes against the former head of state. His opponents are planning demonstrations outside the London parliament and Pinochet's temporary home.

The Pinochet case has now dragged on for six months with many levelling strong criticism at Britain's legal establishment for what they say is its inept and muddled handling of the affair.

A panel of British judges earlier ruled by a 3-2 majority that Pinochet did not have immunity from prosecution. But this ruling was quashed and a new hearing ordered after it emerged that one of the five judges (Lord Hoffmann) had failed to disclose his links with Amnesty International. The human rights organization has long campaigned for Pinochet to be brought to trial.

A second hearing was held in front of seven different judges. It is their verdict that will be delivered tomorrow.