Cook admits Pinochet given a VIP welcome

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS FOR General Augusto Pinochet will return to the High Court this morning in their quest to have his arrest declared unlawful, amid a political row stoked by the admission that his current trip to Britain is the second since Labour came to power.

The controversy over the detention of the former Chilean dictator was further fuelled by confirmation from the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, yesterday that General Pinochet was given a VIP welcome when he arrived in London last month.

Mr Cook said the Foreign Office had been aware of a visit last October by Pinochet, 82, whose extradition has been requested by a Madrid judge to face charges of murdering and torturing Spanish citizens during his 17-year rule.

Last Friday, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, told the House of Commons that General Pinochet - arrested ten days ago in a private London hospital - had made four previous trips to this country, all of them under the Conservatives.

The Home Office said yesterday that there had been no intention to mislead and Mr Straw would set the record straight this week. Michael Howard, Shadow Foreign Secretary, condemned the handling of the affair: "The more one learns about it, the murkier it gets," he told Radio 5 Live. "It's an appalling mess, covered with confusion and created by the Government."

Speculation over the timing of Pinochet's late-night arrest in the London Clinic, where he remains under police guard, deepened yesterday after reports that he had been about to flee Britain.

According to the reports, detectives were tipped off that, hours after the extradition request was received from the Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, Pinochet's aides made a plan to spirit him back to Chile on a 7am flight the next day.

At the High Court hearing, adjourned from last Friday, the General's lawyers will argue that his arrest was illegal because, as head of state when the alleged crimes were committed, he enjoys immunity from prosecution. They will apply for a writ of habeas corpus to have him released,as well as leave to seek judicial review of the decision to detain him.

Mr Cook confirmed in an interview with the BBC programme Breakfast With Frost that the Foreign Office had booked a VIP lounge for General Pinochet at Heathrow and escorted him through a diplomatic passport channel. The arrangements were made at the request of the Chilean ambassador and are customary for former heads of state.

A hearing in Madrid this week will determine whether the extradition request goes ahead. Spain's chief prosecutor has challenged Judge Garzon's right to seek the extradition and contested the evidence on which it is based.

Anti-Pinochet protestersdemonstrated outside the London Clinic throughout the weekend, and there were scuffles yesterday when a Chilean politician, understood to be right-wing Senator Ignacio Perez Walker, left the building.

Chile has formally asked Britain to release General Pinochet, but Mr Cook told the Chilean deputy foreign minister, Mariano Fernandez, on Saturday that it was "neither proper not possible" for the Government to intervene in the extradition proceedings.

Downing Street's concern that the affair be regarded as a judicial matter, and not a political one, was underlined yesterday by Mr Cook, who said it was not for governments to decide who should or should not be arrested.

"We've got to stand by that very important principle that it is the courts, the magistrates and the police who should resolve who is arrested and what happens in the courts, not the Cabinet," he said.

A six-strong delegation of Chilean senators arrived in Britain yesterday, planning to visit General Pinochet in hospital and lobby for his release.

Marco Cariolo, an independent senator and former legal adviser to the British embassy in Santiago, described the General's arrest as "a violation of our sovereignty and an interference in our internal affairs".

Carlos Bombal, a right-wing senator, said that the affair could "seriously imperil" relations between the two countries and undermine political stability in Chile. He warned the British authorities that "they are seriously damaging the process of transition in Chile".