London, 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Chile has recalled its ambassador in London in protest after a British official ruled that proceedings on extraditing former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet may advance.
Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw decided yesterday that Pinochet should appear in a British court tomorrow to answer a case brought by a Spanish magistrate over alleged crimes committed during his 17-year dictatorship in Chile. They include conspiracy to murder, hostage taking and torture.
Pinochet was arrested seven weeks ago at a London clinic where he was recovering from minor surgery on his back. His arrest created a major international controversy.
The decision on Wednesday (Dec. 9) means Pinochet will remain in a guarded mansion outside London for weeks or months while legal wrangling continues over his future.
Straw decided to issue an "authority to proceed" against Pinochet on charges connected with alleged crimes committed after the Chilean military toppled democratically-elected president Salvador Allende in 1973.
"I considered all the representations made to me and in the light of the representations and of my legal obligations, I decided to issue an authority to proceed in respect of the extradition of Senator Pinochet," said Straw. Citing the European Convention on Extradition, which both Britain and Spain have signed, Straw said the crimes alleged to have been carried out by Pinochet were "very serious offenses" under British law. Crucially, he ruled out releasing Pinochet on grounds of his age and health. Pinochet is 83.
A Spanish magistrate wants Pinochet to be questioned over the deaths of some 3,000 political opponents who were either killed or disappeared while his military junta ruled Chile for 17 years.
After his arrest, Britain's High Court ruled that his detention was unjustified. Then, in what is seen as an historic ruling two weeks ago, Britain's top judges ruled by 3-2 that he had no immunity from prosecution. In his ruling yesterday, Straw backed the judges' decision.
The decision was greeted with delight by Pinochet's opponents, many of them related to people who went missing under the military junta. Chilean exiles in a London demonstration welcomed the news noisily: A statement issued by Chile's President Eduardo Frei said the decision to proceed with the extradition process violated Chile's sovereignty, and what it called Pinochet's diplomatic immunity.
The statement said the Chilean government stands by the principle that no outside country has the right or the authority to judge a Chilean citizen. The statement also appealed for calm in Chile, where violent protests have accompanied previous rulings in Britain over Pinochet's fate.
The extradition bid has reopened deep wounds between left and right in Chile which is bitterly divided over Pinochet's legacy. Chile's political parties negotiated the 1990 transition to democracy by giving Pinochet immunity from prosecution as an unelected life member of the upper house, the Senate. He still commands strong loyalty from the Chilean right who claim that he rescued the country from a Marxist-led take-over.
The decision on extradition proceedings was strongly attacked by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who took tea with Pinochet shortly before his arrest. Thatcher, grateful for Chile's support in Britain's 1982 Falklands War with Argentina, called the treatment of Pinochet "shameful."
British opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague said the decision would damage relations with Chile. Hague called the failure to order Pinochet's release "a serious failure of courage."
However, human rights groups hailed the decision as a landmark victory that would send a clear message to other dictators that they will be held accountable for their actions.
Pinochet's lawyers are now expected to fight the extradition proceedings at every stage, a process that could last several months. Once the legal battles are over, it will be up to Straw to take a final decision on whether to surrender Pinochet to Spain -- a prospect that now seems highly likely.