The judges, led by Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, unanimously ruled that as a "former sovereign" he was immune from prosecution. To emotional scenes, and the dismay of the general's alleged victims and human rights campaigners, they also refused to give consent that he could be tried for alleged torture and hostage-taking offences in a British court.
The judges sparked further controversy by granting General Pinochet his legal costs, estimated at up to pounds 350,000, out of public funds. Lawyers for the Crown Prosecution Service asked for, and obtained, leave to appeal to the House of Lords.
Last night General Pinochet was still under hospital arrest at the London Clinic, where he underwent back surgery.
Lord Bingham, sitting with Mr Justice Richards and Mr Justice Collins, said that as a former head of state he had immunity from criminal prosecution, and quashed one of the two provisional warrants under which he was being held. They also allowed his application for a judicial review.
However, the judges stayed the quashing of the second warrant pending the appeal to the House of Lords, and thus enabling General Pinochet to be kept in custody. The appeal is expected to start early next week.
The High Court ruling is seen as another source of embarrassment for the Government in the wake of the Ron Davies affair, with the Tories launching a fresh attack on ministers' handling of the affair. They demanded that the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, make a Commons statement.
Sir Norman Fowler, the Home Affairs spokesman, said: "The Government is entirely responsible for the mess it had created. The Lord Chief Justice of England has now found that the Government did not even know the meaning of diplomatic immunity ... The British government should announce now they will not appeal against the decision of this court and bring this dreadful mess to an end before it does the country further damage."
The Prime Minister sought to dismiss Conservative criticisms, stressing that the judicial process had started with Spanish authorities seeking warrants through Interpol, and had not involved ministers.
Tony Blair said: "The judicial process has not involved the Government issuing warrants for arrest. That is done by the Spanish authorities through Interpol to the British magistrates, who then take it from there. So your question, I'm afraid, is simply misjudged and wrong."
Foreign Office officials had advised Mr Straw that diplomatic immunity did not apply to General Pinochet when the Home Secretary allowed the Spanish warrants to go ahead.
Backbench Labour MPs reacted with anger at the ruling. Ken Livingstone, MP for Brent East, demanded Lord Bingham's resignation for "protecting someone who tortured and murdered not just Spanish citizens but British citizens as well".
At the Chilean embassy in London, the country's deputy foreign minister, Mariano Fernandez, expressed his delight at the court ruling. He said: "We are happy that the British High Court has recognised the state immunity."
Backlash fears, page 5Reuse content