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The Independent, 19.1.00

Campaigners claim Pinochet could have been faking dementia. By Kim Sengupta and Liz Nash

Human rights campaigners presented expert medical evidence to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, yesterday, claiming that General Augusto Pinochet could have been faking dementia during his medical tests.

In a last-ditch attempt to stop the release of the former Chilean dictator, the protesters held out the possibility that he could have taken drugs on his way to the hospital to boost the appearance of frailty and confusion, and reminded the Home Secretary of what happened in the case of Ernest Saunders.

As the 5pm deadline passed for submissions on the matter to be made to him, Mr Straw said he would now give "the most careful consideration" before arriving at his decision, which is not expected until tomorrow at the earliest.

The Spanish Foreign Minister, Abel Matutes, asked Mr Straw to reconsider his decision not to make medical reports on the general available to the Crown Prosecution Service, which is representing the Spanish government. Mr Matutes endorsed the position of Judge Baltasar Garzon, who is seeking the extradition of General Pinochet and has demanded fresh medical tests.

There are likely to be several legal challenges if the Home Secretary decides to free General Pinochet. The CPS is prepared to seek leave for a judicial review if instructed to do so by the Spanish authorities, and human rights organisations may also take court action.

The general's supporters are expected to try to get him out of the country if, and as soon as, Mr Straw decides to stop the extradition proceedings, holding out the prospect of a chase with the former dictator being rushed to the airport while his opponents rush to court to obtain injunctions to prevent him leaving. A Chilean air force plane, which will be hoping to return carrying the senator, is due to land at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, today.

General Pinochet was examined for aboutsix hours at Northwick Park Hospital in north London by the panel of experts appointed by the Home Office. Amnesty International, the Redress Trust, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and the Relatives of the Disappeared in Chile said they had grave reservations about the medical reports, which have been kept secret from those challenging Mr Straw's decision.

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture sent letters from eminent medical specialists to Mr Straw, pointing out that the tests were insufficient to diagnose dementia. Dr Robert Howard, of the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London, and Dr Nori Graham, president of the International Alzheim-er's Society, both said thattests would need to be conducted for several weeks outside a hospital environment to "avoid the possibility of corrupting the tests by drugs, coaching, sleep deprivation and other methods".

Dr Howard pointed to the case of Ernest Saunders, who was released from prison after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, only to recover later.

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