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The Independent, 9.10.99

Pinochet could hold up extradition for months

YESTERDAY'S RULING against Augusto Pinochet was more than a setback to his struggle to avoid extradition. The judgement at Bow Street magistrates' court, in central London, did serious damage to the general's legal team's plans for a future campaign.

Despite a slew of court cases, lobbying by past and present Tory politicians including Baroness Thatcher, and a "torture rally" at the Conservative conference in Blackpool, the former Chilean dictator is being dragged slowly but inexorably towards Spain and a trial for torture, conspiracy to torture and grievous bodily harm.

Even some of the human rights activists campaigning for the general to face justice had thought that while magistrate Ronald Bartle might allow extradition yesterday, he would reduce the charges to just one of torture, ruling out a further 34 counts.

But Mr Bartle's ruling upheld all 35 charges, including those of conspiracy to torture. This would allow the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon to accuse the former dictator of using torture as an instrument of state policy. Furthermore, Mr Bartle ruled that families of missing political prisoners had suffered from "mental torture", enabling the Spanish court to introduce 1,198 cases of people "disappeared" by the Pinochet regime into the proceedings.

General Pinochet now has the choice of accepting the magistrate's decision or, as seems likely, embarking on a long and tortuous trail of appeals which would take months. He and his legal advisors have 15 days to decide whether or not to appeal against yesterday's decision with the High Court. If they fail there, they can seek leave to appeal to the House of Lords.

If those appeals fail, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will decide whether to allow the extradition or use his discretion to free the 83-year-old former dictator on grounds of his alleged ill health. However, according to one of the general's daughters, Lucia, he does not want the "charity" of being released on health grounds.

If Mr Straw allows extradition, the general can appeal again to the High Court. If that fails he can seek leave for judicial review, taking the matter back to the House of Lords.

The alternative would be for Pinochet to abandon the endless appeals and go to Spain. Although this is not seen as likely, his son Marco Antonio has said that it is an option that had been widely discussed, and it is known to have the backing of some senior military officers.

Even if General Pinochet is found guilty at a Spanish trial, he will not serve a day in prison. Under Spanish law no-one over the age of 75 is normally incarcerated. There is the option of a house arrest or curfew, but the Madrid authorities have indicated the penalty is likely to be a large fine and a search for and freezing of the fortune the former dictator accumulated during his time in power.

A Spanish conviction will brand the former dictator as a torturer. However, some of his supporters say privately that once back in Chile the general can refuse to accept the verdict, saying it was the work of a kangaroo court.

The general's supporters claim that the proceedings in Britain are politically motivated, pointing to Tony Blair's speech at the Labour conference last week, in which he referred to the former dictator as "unspeakable".

But in Chile, Spain and London there was rejoicing among human rights activists and victims of the general's regime. Outside Bow Street magistrates, Helena Alvarez, whose boyfriend was tortured, said: "Terrible things were done by this man. This will show other dictators that they will be held to account for their crimes."

A Year of Legal Wangles

September 21/22, 1998: Pinochet, 82, flies to Britain, suffering back problems en route.
October 16: He is arrested at the private London Clinic. Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon requests his detention in connection with alleged human rights crimes in Chile.
October 28: High Court rules the general is entitled to immunity.November 25: Law Lordsrule he is not immune.
December 9: Jack Straw sets Authority to Proceed.
December 11: Pinochet tells court he does not recognise the right of any court outside Chile to hear "all the lies of Spain".
March 24, 1999: Law Lords reduce the charges.
March 25: Baroness Thatcher meets Pinochet.
April 15: New Authority to Proceed published.
July 1: Further torture cases added to indictment.
October 8: Bow Street Magistrates Court rules that Pinochet can be extradited to Spain on torture charges.

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