Pinochet resists being sent to country where he cannot be put in jail

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The Independent Online
GENERAL AUGUSTO Pinochet is about to fly off to Spain without waiting to be extradited. The government in Madrid has done a deal with Chile to send the former dictator back home immediately. He is ill and dying and the British Government is secretly negotiating his release. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is in a hole and is desperate to free the the general. Tony Blair is furious with Mr Straw because General Pinochet's continuing detention is causing massive ructions in British trade with Latin America. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has privately assured the Chilean Foreign Minister that the general will be released within weeks.

All these scenarios have appeared in various forms in the British media in the past few months. The stories have been mostly aired in right-wing publications, and the sources have been the strange circus of British and Chilean supporters who have gathered around the old torturer as he sits brooding under house arrest in Surrey, like an ageing Don Corleone in The Godfather.

The common theme in all this is that General Pinochet's ghastly experience will soon end and he will make a triumphant return to Chile's capital, Santiago, his cruel persecutors slinking away in ignominy.

It is, of course, wishful thinking. The vast sums spent on legal manoeuvring and a massive lobbying campaign, the hectoring of Baroness Thatcher, protests from other past and present Tory politicians, pressure from the former United States president George Bush, the Pope and the Dalai Lama have all failed to stop the general, aged 83, being dragged slowly but inexorably towards extradition and Spain to face charges of human rights abuses.

Much of the frustration and impotent rage of the Pinochet camp is directed towards Mr Straw, often in highly personal attacks. Baroness Thatcher is said positively to bark at the mention of his name. Lord Lamont of Lerwick, the former chancellor and one of the general's busier apologists, is always ready to squeak on about Mr Straw's alleged perfidy.

Bizarre and untrue stories are circulated to link the Home Secretary with Salvador Allende, whose democratically elected government General Pinochet overthrew. He is said to have had an affair with a young Chilean woman, a Communist, in his youth; he is accused of being in thrall to the Labour left...

Mr Straw is not the only one in the firing line, however. After the success of getting the law lords' first ruling against General Pinochet thrown out because of Lord Hoffmann's undeclared links with Amnesty International, any hint by judges or government law officers of an association with a human-rights group is held up as evidence of conspiracy. The latest accused of such a sinister trait is the Attorney General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who had been the patron of a human rights group called Redress, a post he resigned after being appointed as a minister. That General Pinochet's own solicitors contributed to Amnesty is conveniently forgotten.

But now it is reality time. Today, Government of Spain v Augusto Pinochet Ugarte kicks off at Bow Street magistrates' court in London. There is huge international media attention. All other business from the court has been moved elsewhere to make room for the army of journalists from all over the world who will be there.

The proceedings will last about five days, and then Ronald Bartle, the deputy chief metropolitan stipendiary magistrate, will go away for a few more days and come back and, almost certainly, grant the extradition request. Neither camp believes he will refuse to do so. Whether General Pinochet should face the proceedings has already been decided in prolonged hearings at the High Court and the House of Lords. The Crown Prosecution Service, representing the Spanish government, does not even have to present a prima facie case against him. Under the European convention on extradition, Mr Bartle will only have to be convinced that the correct procedure and formalities have been observed.

It is what happens next that will be of real interest. The general's lawyers might start on the long trail of appeals in divisional courts and, if given leave, the House of Lords. This could take years. When all the appeals are exhausted, the matter will come back to the Home Secretary, who has the discretion to release him. The most likely grounds for this would be his age and state of health making extradition "oppressive". If the Home Secretary's decision goes against him, the general could attempt a judicial review, taking it back again all the way to the Lords.

The alternative is for General Pinochet to avoid all this and go to Spain after losing his extradition hearing. This is not as far fetched as it sounds. His son, Marco Antonio, has said it is an option being widely discussed, and it is one being advised by some of his more influential supporters, including senior military officers.

The advantage of this course is that even if he is found guilty, the former dictator will not serve a day in prison. Under Spanish law, no one over 75 can be incarcerated. Furthermore, the charges he faces have been much truncated. The House of Lords, in allowing the extradition proceedings to go ahead, narrowed the scope of prosecution, throwing out charges of hostage taking and conspiracy to murder. Mr Straw had already ruled that charges of genocide could not be brought. These charges cannot be re- introduced once General Pino-chet is in Spain.

There will, of course, be the opprobrium of being a convicted mass torturer. But then, safely back in Chile, the general could always refuse to accept such a verdict, saying it was the work of a kangaroo court.

There is also the Pinochet camp's hope that court proceedings in Spain can be avoided. Jose Aznar's centre-right government has hardly been supportive of the crusade by Judge Balthasar Garzon and lawyer Joan Garces, a former aide of Allende, to bring the general to the dock. There are too many awkward reminders of Spain's transition from Franco to democracy when its own torturers and killers were allowed to go free. Mr Aznar might yet, the Pinochet camp says, do what Mr Straw has refused to do, and send him back to Chile.

But this appears to be more wishful thinking. Attempts by state prosecutors in Spain to block Judge Garzon have repeatedly failed, the latest defeat coming in the Spanish high court at the end of last week. And an attempt by the Chileans to send the Pinochet case for international arbitration was rejected by the government in Madrid a few days earlier. The Chilean government was told that Madrid had no room for manoeuvre on the issue.

With all avenues of avoiding justice seemingly blocked, General Pinochet's supporters are reduced to waving their trump card - his threat to die in this country. There are highly publicised visits to hospitals, anguished tales of him fading away. A death in British captivity would certainly be awkward for the Government. But the problem for the general is that for him to be freed, the police doctors, as well as his own, must be convinced that he is at death's door. And that has not happened. Thus, the stories are now more about his mental rather than physical health, failing.

However, a recent visitor to the Pinochet residence on the private Wentworth estate in Virginia Water, Surrey said that the general was busy surfing the Internet and appeared quite lucid. He was looking better that he had for a long time and had put on weight. The enforced rest appears to have done him some good.

Leading article, Review, page 3

AGAINST EXTRADITION

Baroness Thatcher

She claims Pinochet has been victimised "because the organised international Left are bent on revenge". She visited him for tea at his Surrey mansion.

Lord Lamont

The former chancellor condemns the extraditon hearing as "Britain's first show trial" and says Pinochet should never have been detained.

FOR EXTRADITION

Judge Baltasar Garzon

The colourful Spanish judge accuses Pinochet of human rights abuses spanning 17 years. He wants the general jailed and has filed extra charges against him.

Joan Garces

A lawyer and former aide to Marxist Salvador Allende, a former Chilean president, killed in 1973. Garces wants to correct the wrongs of Chile's right-wing past.

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE

Ronald Bartle

The 70-year-old deputy chief Metropolitan magistrate is in Baroness Thatcher's Royal Society of St George. He believes police do "God's work".

Jack Straw

If the magistrate rules the ex-dictator can be extradited, the Home Secretary will make the final decision on whether he should be sent to Spain.

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