Pinochet ruling `helpful' to Chile

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The Independent Online
THE LAW lords' ruling on the fate of Augusto Pinochet was welcomed yesterday by the President of Chile, Eduardo Frei, after consultation with his ministers and the chiefs of the armed forces.

The decision in London has had the unusual effect of calming tensions between factions supporting and opposing the former dictator, with both sides saying that it was helpful.

Human rights activists in Chile believe the judgment, which held that General Pinochet was not entitled to immunity from prosecution but should not face charges for offences committed before 1988, has helped the prospect of legal actions against him at home.

This was backed yesterday by President Frei, who stated: "The ruling recognises Chile's judicial sovereignty. Any former head of state can be tried in our country. There are a growing number of lawsuits being processed by a Chilean judge against Pinochet who on his return could be tried."

The general is said to have been much encouraged by the views of his lawyers that he has more or less seen off the threat of extradition. They are believed to have told him that even if the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, allows the extradition to continue it is unlikely to succeed because of the paucity of evidence against him relating to the charges still allowed by the law lords' ruling.

On stepping down from power in 1990, General Pinochet made himself life senator and granted himself what was considered to be virtual immunity from prosecution. However, the Chilean government maintains that there are avenues for pursuing justice for crimes committed by the military junta after the general overthew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973.

Relatives of people who disappeared under the Pinochet regime welcomed the lords' judgment. At the headquarters of an association representing them there was cheering, hugs and kisses. A spokeswoman said: "The best thing is that he and others like him are no longer beyond the law."

Meanwhile, a teenage Chilean activist, Marcos Quezada Yanez, who died a few hours after being arrested in June 1989 by the authorities, has become the focal point of any future extradition hearings to send the general to Spain to face charges of human rights abuse. The lords' ruling that General Pinochet cannot be tried for alleged crimes committed before 1988, when the Conspiracy to Torture Act entered the British statute books, means there is only one main charge against him, that of the torture of 17-year-old Marcos.

Mr Straw now has to decide whether to allow the extradition proceedings to continue or halt them and send the general back to Chile.

The general's lawyers have sought leave for a judicial review of Mr Straw's original ruling giving authority to proceed on extradition and the judges have adjourned the case until Monday to allow the Home Secretary to study the implication of the ruling.