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Chile: Britain Opens New Hearing On Pinochet Case

A new legal proceeding opened in London today to decide whether former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet should be extradited to Spain. Pinochet would face charges of crimes against humanity stemming from his 17-year military regime. Correspondent Ben Partridge reports from London.

London, 27 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A London court has begun hearing arguments on whether to send General Augusto Pinochet to trial in Spain. The hearings are the latest move against the former Chilean leader, who has been under house arrest near London for almost a year.

Pinochet was detained while undergoing treatment at a British hospital, and held at the request of a Spanish magistrate. The Spanish government wants him extradited to Madrid to face trial for human rights crimes allegedly committed by his military junta in the 1970s and 1980s.

Over the next five days, a London magistrate will hear complex arguments on extradition law before making a recommendation on Pinochet's fate that will go to Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw. Pinochet will n-o-t be in court for the hearings.

Pinochet seized power in a 1973 coup that ousted the democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, and he ruled Chile until 1990. His opponents say at least 3,000 people, among them Spanish nationals, were killed or disappeared in that time. Pinochet denies the charges leveled against him.

This week's hearings are the latest in a drawn-out series of legal moves against Pinochet that have already cost millions of dollars in lawyers' fees. The case has broken new legal ground, galvanized human rights and Chilean exile groups, and reignited antagonisms between Pinochet's opponents and supporters. Pro-and anti-exile groups staged noisy demonstrations today outside the courtroom.

One Chilean sympathizer insisted that if the 83-year-old Pinochet is to be put on trial anywhere, it should be in Chile, not Europe.

"I think if a trial has to be, if someone wants to stand trial, it should be done in Chile, not here. Because it is impossible for you to understand, and there's no possible way that here in Europe you can understand what happened in Chile."

The Santiago government condemns the Spanish and British moves against Pinochet, saying they violate Chile's sovereignty. Chile's foreign minister, Juan Gabriel Valdes, said at the weekend that Pinochet's lawyers will appeal the case all the way over the next two years.

Valdes told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that Pinochet -- who's in frail health -- is unlikely to survive for that long. This raises the prospect that he could die in Britain, something unwelcome to London.

Valdes called on Britain to allow Pinochet to go home, saying this was "only way out." He also warned of a "nationalist reaction" in Chile if Pinochet dies while abroad, saying the Latin American country's progress toward democracy could suffer a huge setback.

But human rights groups oppose any move to give leniency to Pinochet, despite his advanced age and bad health. Jeremy Corbyn, a legislator from Britain's ruling Labour party, said outside the court today that Britain should press ahead with the legal process.

"What we have done is fulfilled our obligations under the extradition treaty with Spain, which quite legitimately sought him for allegations of torture. In reality, there are an awful lot of people who lost loved ones in Chile, 7,000 died or disappeared. I think they deserve some justice as well, something he always denied his opponents in Chile. He's being treated with kid gloves." Human rights advocates say that, whatever the eventual outcome of the case, it has set an important legal precedent -- the ruling that former heads of state do not have legal immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses. Amnesty International, which wants Pinochet to stand trial, described his arrest in London last year as "a defining moment in the international struggle against impunity."

But even if the London court recommends extradition, that does not automatically mean it will occur. Home Secretary Straw could rule that Pinochet is not fit enough to be sent to Spain, and order him to be freed on compassionate grounds to return home to Santiago.