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Great Britain: The Pinochet Case Awaits House Of Lords Ruling

London, 14 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The next step in the legal case against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet will come on Monday (Jan. 18) when the House of Lords, Britain's highest court, plans to reconsider its earlier verdict that he had no immunity from prosecution.

Pinochet was arrested in London three months ago at the request of Spain, which is seeking his extradition to Madrid to stand trial for alleged crimes against humanity during his 17-year rule in Chile.

The 83-year-old Pinochet is being held under house arrest outside London while his fate is being decided by lawyers and judges. He denies all the allegations made against him.

A panel of judges from the House of Lords ruled in November that he could be prosecuted. That cleared the way for his extradition to stand trial in connection with the murder and disappearance of at least 3,000 people in Chile, many of them Spanish citizens.

But in a surprise ruling on an appeal motion last month, five other judges in the House of Lords overturned the first ruling. They did so on the grounds that one of the law lords involved in the original ruling had failed to disclose his links with the human-rights group Amnesty International, which has campaigned for Pinochet to be put on trial.

The Chilean government will await Monday's court ruling with intense interest. It argues that the Spanish and British moves against Pinochet are an unacceptable violation of Chile's sovereignty.

Pinochet was visited this week by some Polish politicians, led by Michal Kaminski, of the ruling Electoral Action Solidarity coalition, who had organized a petition signed by 30 legislators in support of the former Chilean dictator. Kaminski said, for his generation of Poles, Pinochet is a hero for saving "his country from communism."

But some human rights activists say that if British judges rule in favor of Pinochet on Monday, it will be a setback for efforts to recognize and apply universal jurisdiction for human rights violations committed during peacetime.

The extradition case against Pinochet is set to become the most expensive legal case ever heard in Britain, likely to cost taxpayers many millions of dollars.

A Home Office spokesman says the case is likely to cost the British taxpayer at least 50 million dollars if it drags on much longer.

Both the British government and Pinochet have run up enormous legal costs since he was arrested at a London hospital in October after undergoing minor surgery on his back. The Blair government has consulted more than 50 top lawyers, while Pinochet has hired teams of British and Chilean lawyers to fight the extradition demand. Britain is also paying a huge bill for a round-the-clock police guard on Pinochet. In addition, Pinochet may seek compensation for the living expenses he has incurred.

Opposition Conservative Party legislators in Britain say the cost of the Pinochet case makes it even more important that he be freed to return to Santiago at once.

If Britain's top judges decide on Monday that Pinochet does, after all, have immunity from prosecution, he will be allowed to return to Santiago. But if they rule against him, the extradition process could drag on for months, and costs will soar further.