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The Independent, 3.3.00

Secret negotiations got the Home Secretary off the extradition hook. By Kim Sengupta

A deal to free General Pinochet was brokered as long ago as last August, according to campaigners from both camps.

They are now convinced that the former dictator was released under a joint plan formed by Britain, Spain and Chile to rid themselves of a common embarrassment.

According to Home Office sources, Jack Straw was unhappy about the arrest of Pinochet in October 1998, but decided to stand by his obligation to Spain under the European extradition convention, and resisted pressure from both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, who warned of trade and diplomatic problems with Chile.

Mr Straw has maintained his decision to free Pinochet is based on the independent medical report which showed he was suffering from brain damage caused by a series of strokes. He asked the general to undergo the tests in November after representations from Chile, following a stroke in October. But The Independent revealed last August that the Home Secretary had already received legal advice on how he could free General Pinochet on medical grounds.

The report by Jonathan Sumption, QC, counsel for Home Secretary, charted the various avenues open to Mr Straw and stressed his discretionary power to refuse extradition even in the face of opposition by Spain, the country seeking to try the general on charges of human rights abuse.

After General Pinochet's arrest, Mr Straw and his advisers believed the courts would soon rid them of the problem. The first High Court hearing - at which the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, and his fellow judges decided the general had immunity from prosecution - seemed to clear the way.

The Crown Prosecution Service, representing Judge Baltasar Garzon, appealed to the House of Lords, but even that seemed a formality. Mr Straw was preparing to tell the Commons that he had been forced to release General Pinochet because the law lords had upheld Lord Bingham's ruling, when news came through that they had, in fact, overturned it.

As General Pinochet was dragged inexorably towards a trial in Spain, the pressure for his release from both the Chilean and Spanish governments continued to mount.

Various options to send the general back to Chile were discussed with the Foreign Office, but were deemed unacceptable because they would be incompatible with Mr Straw's quasi-judicial responsibilities. Then in September the Chilean Foreign Minister, Juan Gabriel Valdes, raised the matter of General Pinochet's health, according to Foreign Office sources.

Mr Valdes said the Chilean government would be able to provide a medical report which showed Pinochet was suffering rapidly deteriorating health. That would enable the Home Secretary to ask the general to undergo further tests.

At this point, Mr Straw decided to order his own test, opening the way to the use of his discretionary powers to free the general. At the same time the Spanish Foreign Minister, Abel Matutes, let it be known that Madrid would not pass on any appeal by Judge Garzon against a decision by Mr Straw.

On 5 November last year, Michael Caplan, of Kingsley Napley, the general's solicitors, received a letter from the Home Office offering "confidential" medical tests. The Pinochet camp was surprised at this. One member said: "None of us expected the Home Secretary to act until the due legal process was concluded. This was a very unexpected intervention. We did not ask for the medical test and we did not ask for this guarantee of confidentiality."

Mr Straw subsequently gave MPs the impression that it was General Pinochet's lawyers who demanded the guarantee of confidentiality. But this, say both the Pinochet camp and his opponents, can be disproved by the correspondence from the Home Office. Mr Straw may now have to face some close questioning from his own MPs.

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