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The Independent, 16.2.00

Straw ordered to release Pinochet medical reports. By Kim Sengupta

The Home Secretary suffered an embarrassing legal defeat yesterday when the High Court ruled that he had acted unfairly in keeping the medical report on the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet secret.

In a unanimous decision, three senior judges ordered Jack Straw to disclose the results of the tests to the four countries seeking to extradite the former dictator for torture and human rights abuses. They also awarded costs of the action, brought by Belgium and human rights groups, against the Home Secretary.

The judges at the High Court were highly critical of Mr Straw's decision to let only law officers in the UK see the report. Lord Justice Simon Brown, sitting with Mr Justice Latham and Mr Justice Dyson, said: "If ever there was a case in which the integrity of the international criminal justice system needed to be demonstrated, a case calling for the highest standards of fairness and transparency, this is it. It is simply not satisfactory that this all-important medical report should be seen only by four office-holders within a single state."

The judges stated that Mr Straw's decision to release General Pinochet on medical grounds would effectively mean he would never be tried anywhere despite "the enormity of the alleged crimes" he is accused of, and thus there must be far greater transparency over the Home Secretary's actions.

The Independent has revealed that contrary to the impression Mr Straw had given in the Commons, that General Pinochet had demanded confidentiality over his medical examinations, it was, in fact, the Home Office which had offered confidentiality.

The judges dismissed arguments by lawyers for Mr Straw and Mr Pinochet that the former dictator's rights of confidentiality overrode other considerations. Lord Justice Simon Brown said: " I reject his [Mr Straw's] and Senator Pinochet's contention that the loss of confidentiality and privacy involved is disproportionate to the advantages this will bring. The Secretary of State is not merely entitled to make disclosure. He is obliged to do so."

The ruling is a major blow to Mr Straw's plans to release Mr Pinochet on medical grounds without him facing trial in Spain. The embassies of Belgium and Spain as well as France and Switzerland, were given copies of the medical tests yesterday afternoon. They have seven days to make representations over it. Mr Straw promised he would not make a decision on freeing Mr Pinochet until he had a chance to study these representations.

Human rights groups called for fresh medical tests on Mr Pinochet. And Amnesty International maintained that the courts, and not Mr Straw, should make the final decision on whether or not Mr Pinochet is unfit to stand trial. Their lawyers are expected to use yesterday's decision as a springboard to pursue this.

This latest twist in the 15-month saga was greeted with delight by human rights groups, former political prisoners of Mr Pinochet's military regime and legal authorities investigating him in various countries.

But supporters of the former dictator, including past and present Conservative politicians, expressed anger and dismay. Former chancellor Norman Lamont, one of Pinochet's most vocal apologists, called the judges' decision "disgraceful".

He said: "The courts are taking so long to resolve this matter it reflects no credit on the British legal system. Judges seem to exist only to contradict each other... One would have thought the Belgians have got enough problems with their legal system without interfering in ours."

The Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel declared that this was a landmark decision. He said "In this case ethics and justice came together. All the dictators of the world now know that they can always be brought before a court for their acts. We have been understood and I want to salute British justice. The fight for international justice is my fight, is the fight of my country, is the fight of all democrats."

In Chile,Viviana Diaz, president of the organisation for those who disappeared under Mr Pinochet's rule, said: "Justice has been denied to us for so long, but we continue to fight for it. This is a step forward."

The Labour MP Ann Clwyd, chairwoman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, said: "I am delighted that the High Court has recognised that the interested parties must have access to all the evidence if they are to challenge the conclusion that Pinochet is too ill to stand trial."

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said: "An admission by Mr Straw that he was wrong would be welcome. There has always been the strongest case for the report to be published." 

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