London, 25 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Legal experts in London say the fate of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet may not be decided for months following the latest ruling on his case yesterday by Britain's highest legal court.
The panel of senior judges ruled that Pinochet -- who is under house arrest in Britain -- must stay in the country to face a bid to extradite him to Spain to stand trial on human rights charges.
But, on legal and technical grounds, the judges threw out many of the charges leveled against Pinochet by Spanish authorities, boosting his supporters' hopes that the 83-year-old general will eventually be able to return home.
Human rights activists say more than 3,000 people were murdered or 'disappeared' during Pinochet's 17-year military rule. They accuse his regime of torture, hostage taking and conspiracy. Madrid got involved because some of the victims were Spanish.
Pinochet was arrested in Britain at the request of a Spanish magistrate in October while he was being treated at a London clinic. He is confined to a rented mansion near London. He denies all charges leveled against him.
In a new twist to the affair, the panel of British judges ruled by six-to-one that he can face extradition proceedings only on allegations of torture and conspiracy committed after 1988.
That was the year when Britain introduced legislation that made torture an "extraterritorial" crime. Before that date, torture committed outside Britain was not a crime under British law.
The narrowing of the charges was announced to the House of Lords by the chairman of the British judges (Lord) Browne-Wilkinson:
"The majority therefore considers that Senator Pinochet can be extradited only for the extradition crimes of torture and conspiracy to torture alleged to have been committed after Dec. 8, 1988."
The ruling reduced the charges that Pinochet faces from 30 to only three. Most of the dismissed allegations against him relate to alleged acts committed by his security forces in the early months and years after he seized power in a military coup in September, 1973.
Legal experts said the latest ruling dramatically cuts the chances of a successful prosecution in a Spanish court.
The ambiguous ruling has caused some confusion for Pinochet's supporters and opponents in Santiago and London, with both sides taking to the streets acclaiming it as a victory.
The ruling means that Pinochet must remain on bail and under police guard in Britain, at an estimated cost to the British taxpayer of $80,000 a week, while the legal wrangling continues.
The British judges called on Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw to reconsider the case because of the substantial reduction in extraditable charges against Pinochet. But they said the extradition proceedings can still go ahead. Browne-Wilkinson:
"By a majority of six to one, the committee recommends that, while Senator Pinochet is entitled to immunity in relation to the charges of conspiracy to murder, he is not entitled to state immunity in relation to the remaining charges. The Secretary of State can, therefore, if he thinks fit, commit the extradition proceedings against Senator Pinochet to continue on the drastically reduced charges."
Straw ruled last year that Pinochet should be extradited and made it clear that he considered the matter closed. But now he has to reopen it. Pinochet's lawyers are expected to mount a further series of legal challenges if Straw again rules against him.
Human rights activists say that the ruling that Pinochet is liable for prosecution, albeit on a reduced list of charges, means that an encouraging precedent has been set for other heads of state to be tried for crimes against humanity. But critics fault what they called Britain's muddled handling of the case.
Some argue that justice might best be served by allowing Pinochet to return to Chile since moves are underway to press human rights charges against him there. This would mollify the many Chileans who see foreign attempts to put Pinochet on trial as infringing on their national sovereignty.