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The Independent, 14.8.99

Straw Seeks advice on freedom for ailing Pinochet

JACK STRAW, the Home Secretary, has sought legal advice on how he can free General Augusto Pinochet from custody if the former Chilean dictator's health deteriorates.

A report has been sent to the Home Secretary from barrister Jonathan Sumption, QC, amid reports that the Chilean and Spanish governments are negotiating on how the General can be released without facing extradition from Britain to face trial for human rights abuses in Madrid.

Mr Straw is advised that if the General's health deteriorates significantly he should ask the Spanish authorities to withdraw the extradition request. If this is declined, he may use his discretionary power to refuse extradition. This is almost certain to be followed by an application for habeas corpus by General Pinochet's legal team.

The former dictator's supporters are expected to say Mr Sumption's advice shows the Home Secretary is now desperately seeking a way out of the impasse. A medical report compiled at the Spanish government's request and signed by two doctors stated that he has "serious medical problems with a very significant risk of death and serious illness...we do not believe that he would be able to stand the stress of further captivity or a long trial". The general is said to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, prostate problems and arthritis.The report was passed to the Home Office as part of the lobbying process to free him. His legal team says it is not planning to raise the issue of his health for the time being.

A senior Home Office official said yesterday that Mr Straw had sought the advice on General Pinochet's health purely for contingency reasons,the legal process will continue and he has no intention of intervening. " Any attempt to say this is an attempt by the Home Office to prevent extradition is just propaganda by the General's apologists', said the source. Extradition proceedings are due to start in late September.

Lawyer Geoffrey Bindman, who has been acting for Amnesty International, the human rights organisation which wants the former dictator to face charges for abuse of political prisoners, said: " The Home Secretary has always made it clear that this will be a legal and not political decision and he will not interfere.

"The correct time for the medical issue to be raised would be after the extradition proceedings have been completed and and before any trial begins."

General Pinochet could still face charges in Britain even if Spain drops its extradition call. Scotland Yard has the power to investigate a complaint against the General led by the human rights group, Amnesty International, over the disappearance of Briton, William Beausire in Chile after the military coup which overthrew the legally elected government of Salvador Allende. The Crown Prosecution Service will also have to consider separate official extradition requests from Switzerland and France for General Pinochet, which have been put on hold while the Spanish case is going on.

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