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Britain: High Court Weighs Pinochet Extradition

London, 10 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A British legal hearing has been told that the extradition of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain to face murder charges could threaten Chile's internal stability.

Five of Britain's top judges are currently meeting in London to decide whether Pinochet was illegally detained by British authorities last month at the request of a Spanish investigating judge.

The 82-year-old Pinochet was arrested almost four weeks ago (Oct. 16) while recuperating in a London hospital from minor back surgery. Spanish authorities allege he committed murder, torture and other crimes after seizing power in a military coup in 1973. Pinochet ruled until he voluntarily surrendered power to a democratically elected president eight years ago..

The High Court in London decided 12 days ago that Pinochet could not be extradited to face trial in Madrid because he is protected by state immunity. The Spanish government then appealed to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court, to overturn that ruling. Today, the House of Lords hearing entered its fourth day.

Claire Montgomery, the attorney acting for Pinochet, told the hearing his extradition could lead to a political upheaval in Chile and damage the Latin American country's diplomatic relations with Britain. Declaring his arrest unlawful, she said the court is being asked to walk a thin line between what she described as "the interests of justice and (of) state stability."

Montgomery said that when a country such as Chile replaces an authoritarian regime with a democratic system, there is inevitably tension between the need to call to account human-rights abusers and the need for reconciliation. She said Chile had come to terms with its past by declaring an amnesty and appointing Pinochet a senator for life, which had made him immune from prosecution.

Alun Jones, an attorney acting for Spanish authorities, told the hearing that Pinochet has no right to sovereign immunity in the face of what he called "savage and barbarous crimes" committed by his regime against its opponents in Chile, Spain, Italy and the U.S. Jones urged the judges to reject what he called the "repugnant notion" that Pinochet was entitled to immunity because the alleged offenses were committed in the course of his official functions as head of state.

Amnesty International, which is represented legally at the hearing, argues that Pinochet should n-o-t be immune from prosecution. Javier Zuniga, director of the human-rights group's Americas program, spoke to RFE/RL:

"We believe that the crimes committed by the military regime in Chile are crimes against humanity and therefore are not covered by any diplomatic immunity."

Three days ago, in his first public reaction to his arrest, Pinochet said he was "hurt and bewildered" at his treatment in Britain. He also said he was at peace with the Chilean nation and should be allowed home to live his last days in peace.

Chilean exiles reacted angrily, saying Pinochet has never apologized for his alleged crimes. Among those at the hearing is Isabelle Allende, daughter of former Socialist President Salvador Allende, who was killed in the 1973 coup that overthrew his democratically elected Left-wing government, bringing Pinochet to power.

Amnesty International's Zuniga says the universal nature of the crimes against humanity allegedly committed by the Pinochet regime means that, in his words, "any tribunal of any country" should be able to try the general:

"Our position is based on many international legal instruments starting with the Nuremberg (war-crimes) trials after (World War Two). It was very clear at that tribunal that heads of state could not claim diplomatic immunity for crimes against humanity."

The London court hearing, which could last into next week, will decide whether to approve the extradition request of the Spanish government or allow Pinochet to leave Britain for Chile. If it rules in favor of extradition, the final decision will rest with British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw.