Britain finds Pinochet unfit for trial

extradition not likely

Examination by 4 doctors could lead to freedom for ex-Chilean dictator

January 12, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet is unfit to stand trial, British authorities announced last night, a finding that could lead to his freedom and wind up one of the most contentious episodes in recent international legal history.

Four British doctors who examined the ailing 84-year-old former dictator Jan. 5 reached an "unequivocal and unanimous" conclusion that Pinochet was "at present unfit to stand trial and that no change to that position can be expected," according to a statement released by Britain's Home Office.

The statement added that Home Secretary Jack Straw, the final arbiter in extradition cases, "is minded to take the view that no purpose would be served by continuing the present extradition proceedings and that he should therefore decide not to extradite Senator Pinochet."

Pinochet is facing a legal appeal to a London magistrate over a Spanish extradition request on 35 torture and conspiracy charges.

The case that has upended legal precedents ever since Pinochet's arrest in October 1998 in a London hospital where he was recovering from spinal surgery could run a little longer.

Straw gave seven days for Spain, Chile and other interested parties, including human rights groups, to make their cases to Britain.

France, Belgium and Switzerland also have outstanding extradition requests for Pinochet.

Pinochet, under armed guard in a suburban London home, was said to be "delighted" by the news, according to a spokesman.

So were his supporters, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who told Britain's Press Association that she trusts Straw's judgment.

"He is a very fair man," Thatcher said.

In Chile, one of Pinochet's supporters, retired Gen. Rafael Villarroel, told a radio station that the announcement "is positive for the country. It opens the door for Pinochet's return."

Spain indicated it would respect whatever decision the British government reached.

"The Spanish government has maintained from the first moment an attitude of absolute respect for judicial decisions taken in relation to this case. It is its intention also to respect the decisions of the British government," a foreign ministry statement said.

Others were outraged.

"We are reacting with horror," said Carlos Reyes, a spokesman for a Chilean exile group, Chile Democratico. "To know that he is escaping justice is unbelievable."

Last night's Home Office statement was another bombshell in a case that has reverberated worldwide. The struggle to bring Pinochet to account reopened old wounds in Chile over memories of his bloody 17-year dictatorship.

It also ignited a political storm in Britain, where the government was forced to confront a delicate moral, ethical and legal debate over the attempt to bring a former foreign national leader to justice.

The episode was triggered by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who used his investigative powers to pursue Pinochet on human rights charges. There are allegations that up to 4,000 people disappeared or were killed during the dictator's reign.

The case has plowed its way through the British courts and twice landed in the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, with Pinochet's lawyers arguing that as a former head of state he retained immunity.

The possible release of Pinochet on compassionate grounds has shadowed the case constantly. In October, the Chilean Embassy submitted to Straw new medical reports, providing "suggestions that there had been recent and significant deterioration" in Pinochet's condition, according to the Home Office.

The Sunday Times of London had reported that Pinochet was suffering from the effects of a viral infection, diabetes, heart disease and the aftermath of two strokes.

Straw requested that Pinochet undergo extensive medical tests by a panel of British doctors -- two neurologists and two geriatric specialists. Two of the doctors were fluent Spanish speakers and the seven-hour examination at a North London hospital was conducted in Spanish.

Despite the announced conclusion by the government, the medical report is to remain confidential, the Home Office said.

For those seeking to bring Pinochet to justice, there is at least vindication that the case has gotten this far.

"It was unlikely that he would go to jail but there was a possibility he could at least go to trial," said Fiona McKay, legal officer of the victims' rights group, Redress.

"A legal precedent has been set. A message has been sent to those who violate human rights. But many of the victims will feel let down by this."

Michael Howard, home secretary in the last Conservative government, said it was "a pity Jack Straw did not ask for these reports months ago and reach the same conclusion months ago."

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