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Great Britain: Pinochet May Be Released

Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet -- who's been under house arrest in Britain for more than a year -- may be free to return home after being declared medically unfit to stand trial. RFE/RL correspondent Ben Partridge reports from London.

London, 12 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw announced yesterday that it is his intention to release the 84-year-old Pinochet because the former general's health has worsened.

Straw said a four-person medical team, which examined Pinochet last week, concluded that he was "at present unfit to stand trial, and that no change to that position can be expected."

Pinochet has been held in Britain since his arrest in a London hospital 15 months ago on a warrant from a Spanish magistrate. Spain is seeking to try him on charges of abusing human rights during his 17 years as head of the military junta that ruled Chile.

The Santiago government that succeeded Pinochet estimates that 3,200 people, including a number of Spanish citizens, were killed or disappeared after he seized power in a 1973 military coup.

The state of Pinochet's health has been an issue since the controversial British decision to detain him in October 1998.

Straw did not disclose the contents of the medical report, but Pinochet's friends say he has suffered three minor strokes since his arrest. They say he is also suffering from diabetes and depression.

Straw said that because of the medical report -- and subject to any representations he may receive -- that no purpose would be served by continuing the present extradition proceedings, and that he should "therefore decide not to extradite Senator Pinochet."

The surprise ruling is expected to be subject to a legal challenge within the next seven days from the Spanish government and other interested parties such as Amnesty International, which has long called for Pinochet to be put on trial for human rights crimes. Pinochet has always denied the allegations against him.

Reaction to the British statement was mixed. Carlos Reyes, a spokesman for Chileans living in exile, said he felt "horror" at the thought that Pinochet would escape justice. He said he would make urgent appeals to Straw not to drop the extradition case.

Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing legislator and a member of Britain's parliamentary human rights group, told the BBC that Straw should have made public the medical report, and insisted that Pinochet is fit to stand trial on torture charges.

"We believe he is liable under British law, under the Criminal Justice Act, for conviction in Britain, for torture against individuals in Chile as part of the international law that outlaws torture."

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who has been campaigning for Pinochet's release, welcomed the announcement. She has visited the general several times, praising him for his support during the Falklands war against Argentina.

A spokeswoman for Thatcher's Conservative Party, Ann Widdecombe, complained that Straw had not disclosed the full picture.

"What [Straw] should do now is first of all come to parliament and allow us to work out what is going to happen. If he is now going to wait for further representations, then not only may they be spun out, but we may also get legal challenges. He has made a mess of this case from start to finish."

A commentary in today's "Guardian" newspaper says that Straw probably decided to rule in Pinochet's favor because it would cause a lot of political damage if he died while under British custody.

It says the image of a Chilean military guard escorting the flag-draped coffin across a British airport may "have been enough of a nightmare to persuade Straw to send the ailing dictator home."

If the decision is confirmed to drop the extradition proceedings, it will bring to an end a long -- and expensive -- legal saga that has seen lawyers arguing the case for and against the senator.

The affair has severely strained Anglo-Chilean ties, sometimes to near the breaking point, with the Santiago government claiming that the decision to arrest Pinochet violates Chile's national sovereignty. The Santiago government today welcomed the British statement.

However, human rights campaigners claim that -- whatever Pinochet's fate -- the case has spelled out to rights abusers around the world that international law will catch up with them.

They say that the British courts have set a crucial precedent -- that former heads of state cannot hide behind the concept of state immunity to avoid prosecution for crimes committed in office.