Chileans ready to reclaim Pinochet

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A CHILEAN air force plane arrives in Britain today to fly General Augusto Pinochet back home to Santiago if the law lords decide that he has immunity from prosecution on charges of human rights abuse.

On the eve of the ruling there was frantic lobbying yesterday from both sides on the emotive issue, with politicians and public figures flying in from Chile for what may be the campaign's final furlong.

General Pinochet is said to have spent the past few days personally directing operations. The former Chilean dictator and his wife, Lucia, aresaid to have their bags packed ready to return after coming for a shopping trip which in the end has lasted almost six months.

Former Chilean political prisoners and their supporters yesterday kept up their own pressure, placing 4,000 tiny crosses on the lawn outside the Houses of Parliament in memory of those murdered or "disappeared" by General Pinochet's regime. Roberto Vasquez, a member of the Chile Committee Against Immunity, who spent seven years in jail, said: "Each of these crosses represents a human life which was extinguished. We are here to remind the law lords about the barbarities that took place under Pinochet and ask them to make a stand for the weak and the oppressed."

If the law lords decide that the general has immunity from prosecution, he will be able to leave at once. A decision against him is expected to lead to an immediate application for judicial review by his legal team over the legality of his original arrest.

If they fail with that there will be the beginning of extradition proceedings to Spain, where the general is wanted on charges of human rights abuse, which could last for months.

There was speculation that the judgment will refuse him immunity from prosecution, but at the same time make it difficult for a successful extradition to Spain.

The new panel of seven judges may uphold the previous Lords ruling that General Pinochet does not get blanket protection from charges of human rights abuse as a former head of state.

At the same time they may decide that the general cannot be tried for any offences committed in Chile before l988 when torture became an extra- territorial offence under United Kingdom laws. The vast majority of the Spanish charges against the general relate to before that year. The only direct one after that period is the alleged torture of a teenage girl.

The Attorney-General, John Morris, has already refused leave for a private prosecution in Britain of General Pinochet for the alleged murder of a British businessman, William Beausire, who was kidnapped in Argentina in l974. Mr Morris told the Commons that his decision was based on advice from government lawyers that the l988 Act was not retrospective in relation to British law.

However, the Spanish warrant also alleges that General Pinochet was involved in conspiracy to murder with agents of his secret police, Dina, while in Madrid. The Crown Prosecution Service could argue that any Lords ruling about lack of retrospection of the l988 Act cannot apply to these charges.

Legal sources also say that as long as the principle is established that General Pinochet does not enjoy immunity, the CPS will be able to argue the issue through extradition proceedings, raising the possibility of many months of attritional legal hearings.