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The Independent, 3.3.00

Spain rids itself of an embarrassment. By Elizabeth Nash, in Madrid

The crusading Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon attempted a last-ditch appeal against the former dictator Augusto Pinochet's release on Thursday but was overruled by the Spanish government's acceptance of Jack Straw's decision.

The judge, whose international warrant prompted the general's arrest in London 17 months ago, pledged last night to keep the case alive and to reissue the warrant, should the general set foot outside Chile again.

But yesterday realpolitik finally prevailed over human rights considerations, to the relief of a conservative government that never wanted the general brought to Spain.

Judge Garzon sent a nine-page fax to the Crown Prosecution Service minutes after Mr Straw's announcement yesterday morning, instructing the CPS to urge the Home Office to suspend the release order until the High Court ruled on a habeas corpus claim due on 20 March. But to act, the CPS would have had to receive the request via Madrid's Foreign Ministry. Madrid took no action.

The Spanish Foreign Minister, Abel Matutes, explained the decision. "An appeal would damage relations between Spain, Chile and the rest of Latin America, and would put into question Chile's democratic transition."

Mr Matutes and Judge Garzon were from the outset following separate paths. While the judge launched into uncharted territory and revolutionised international human rights law, the government clung to traditional formulae.

Having rid his government of an embarrassment ahead of closely contested elections, Mr Matutes allowed himself to be magnanimous yesterday. He said: "We all have a certain bitter taste that justice could not reach its ultimate conclusion. But we can be satisfied that politically Spanish justice has won and established important precedents."

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