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The Independent, 3.3.00

Pinochet takes flight amid accusations of betrayal and subterfuge

There was no fanfare, no farewell, no VIP departure lounge. From a windswept airfield, hidden away from public gaze, Augusto Pinochet, 84, former dictator and alleged murderer and torturer, disappeared yesterday, back home to Chile.

His flight did not end the 17 months of political, legal and diplomatic turbulence his visit and enforced stay had brought to Britain. Instead, the bitter recriminations that had marked the affair from the start continued unabated with accusations of subterfuge and betrayal.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who released the general at 8am yesterday on medical grounds, was the focus of much of the anger among human rights campaigners, and those who had suffered in the Pinochet regime's brutal prison camps.

But the sight of the Chilean Air Force Boeing 707 flying away at 1.14pm ended their hopes of bringing to justice the man accused of 4,000 killings, and the disappearance of thousands of political prisoners. Although judges in Chile have said they will pursue their own case against General Pinochet, few expect it to succeed.

General Pinochet may have already gone, but his shadow hung over a grim House of Commons sessions yesterday. A subdued Mr Straw experienced the anger of his own backbenchers. Cries of "shame" and "disgrace" washed over him as he tried to explain why he freed the general after medical tests showed he suffered from brain damage.

The Home Secretary's previous steadfastness, against intense pressure, domestic and international, to release General Pinochet had made him a hero to the left. Yesterday they accused him of betraying civil liberties, and the general's broken victims. He was also attacked by the Conservatives, who had vehemently opposed the general's incarceration.

There was anger too from four of Britain's European allies - Belgium, Spain, France and Switzerland - which had sought to extradite the general. Mr Straw had rejected their request for fresh medical tests to be conducted.

Mr Straw told MPs about the passions the Pinochet case had aroused. He had received 70,000 letters and e-mails about the case from people around the world - almost all urging him to allow extradition.

Nevertheless, he was prepared to let General Pinochet go and accepted personal responsibility, saying that the decisions were "mine alone and have not been decisions of Her Majesty's Government". He was candid about the unlikelihood of General Pinochet facing justice in Chile. "The practical consequence of refusing to extradite Senator Pinochet to Spain is that he will probably not be tried anywhere.

"I am very conscious of the sense of injury which is bound to be felt by those who suffered. Ultimately, however, I was driven to the conclusion that a trial of the charges against Senator Pinochet, however desirable, was simply no longer possible."

Baroness Thatcher, who led past and present Conservative politicians in defence of the general, welcomed his release. "Senator Pinochet was a staunch friend of Britain throughout the Falklands war. His reward from this Government was to be held prisoner for 16 months. In the meantime, his health has been damaged and his reputation has been tarnished and vast sums of public money have been squandered on a political vendetta."

William Hague declared that Mr Straw's handling of the case had wasted millions of pounds of public money on "student politics. This was a story of moral posturing, gross incompetence and now international humiliation," he said.

General Pinochet had been expected to leave the UK from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, where a Chilean jet had been on stand-by since early this year. But in a carefully planned security operation, the aircraft took off just after 5am, flying to Lincolnshire.

Shortly after Mr Straw's decision emerged, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that the general could not be prosecuted in the UK.

A last-gasp bid to challenge Mr Straw's ruling by the Spanish judge who launched the proceedings against the general failed get off the ground.

Those pursuing the general expressed their own anger at Mr Straw. Chile Democratico, a group of Chilean exiles in Britain, said the Home Secretary had "failed the cause of human rights" and accused the British, Spanish and Chilean governments of a "stitch-up".

"It is simply too convenient for the governments involved that Pinochet, who a few short months ago was giving long and lucid newspaper interviews, should suddenly be found incapable of understanding the charges against him," it said.

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