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The Financial Times, 25.9.99

General Pinochet weighs his options. By John Mason in London, David White in Madrid and Mark Mulligan in Santiago

The fate of Gen Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator accused of torture by Spanish prosecutors, should be clearer after a formal extradition hearing which starts in London on Monday.

Governments and business leaders in the UK, Spain and Chile will be watching closely. Tensions between the governments have increased and trade relations between Spain and Chile damaged.

The Bow Street magistrates court could decide to free the general and allow him to return home. However, most lawyers consider this unlikely, believing the complex legal issues will be passed to higher UK courts for a final decision. An appeals process lasting several months is likely.

What should emerge after the hearing is a clearer indication of the tactics Gen Pinochet will adopt to defend himself and whether he will try to short-circuit the appeals. He could try to speed up proceedings in one of two ways.

Aides have long maintained that his health is declining and he may not be fit to stand trial. However, Jack Straw, the home secretary, responsible for the case, cannot consider it again on health grounds until after all legal proceedings have finished.

Pinochet advisers are now considering whether, if he loses next week's extradition hearing, he should abandon further appeals and appeal to Mr Straw for release on compassionate grounds. Given the general's campaigning through Conservative politicians and newspapers, this could present the Labour government with a difficult problem.

One source said that while many of the claims by the Pinochet camp should be discounted, his heart and kidneys were now causing serious problems.

Alternatively, aides have suggested he might travel to Spain voluntarily if he loses the extradition case. He could then mount a similar legal defence to the one planned in the UK and avoid a second British winter under arrest.

The legal issues that will be raised at both the extradition hearing and in any Spanish proceedings include whether Spain has jurisdiction over the case.

The claim to extraterritorial jurisdiction - irrespective of the nationality of the accused or the victim, or of where the crime took place - is more clearly spelt out in the cases of genocide or terrorism, charges which Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish examining magistrate, initially tried to press.

Gen Pinochet's Spanish lawyers argue that the UN Convention against Torture, the treaty under which extradition is being considered, is less broad in its scope and that a Spanish court cannot claim to try the case unless one or more of the alleged victims in the closing period of the Pinochet regime was a Spaniard.

The treaty says signatory countries should take measures to establish jurisdiction when either the victim or the alleged offender is a national of that country.

This commitment also applies when an alleged offender is present in a signatory country's territory - a clause that may be used to argue for a UK trial if Gen Pinochet is not sent to Spain or to another of the countries which have also applied for his extradition.

Extradition would land the affair in the lap of the Spanish government at an awkward moment, less than six months before a general election. It has been clear that Spain's centre-right administration, which agreed to make the extradition request on behalf of the investigating magistrate, would rather not see the ex-dictator on its doorstep.

The build-up to the extradition hearings has caused growing concern among Spanish companies active in Chile - including high-profile interests in banking, power and telecommunications - and irritation between the two governments.

Spain has rejected a Chilean demand for international arbitration on the question of where Gen Pinochet should be tried, saying the case is sub judice. Juan Gabriel Valdés, Chile's foreign minister, has dismissed Spain's argument about its lack of options as "pathetic".

Both countries are preparing to contest the issue in the International Court of Justice, which is where the UN treaty says the dispute should go if two governments cannot agree on arbitration within six months.

Chile is boycotting a meeting of defence colleges in Madrid early next month. It recently summoned 20 leading Spanish executives to warn them about the consequences of further delays over the case.

Eugenio Tironi, Chilean political commentator and former government director of communications, said the government's assault on Spain reflected a frustration at the prolonged nature of the case and indignation at what it sees as an attack on Chilean sovereignty.

He dismissed the once popular view that the administration of President Eduardo Frei was acting out of fear of the armed forces. Not only have initial concerns about organised or wildcat military action proved overstated, but a coincidence of events - including the detention of Gen Pinochet, changes in the composition of the High Court, and the determination of one special magistrate to try human rights cases - has conspired to strip the armed forces of their apparent impunity.

Now the focus will switch to London again. Gen Pinochet will not be in court while the lawyers argue, but he must appear in person for the ruling in three weeks. If he is not freed, he has big decisions to make.

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