The mounting calls that General Pinochet should face justice would, it is believed, make it more difficult for Mr Straw to use his discretionary powers and send him back to Chile. The warrants relate to citizens of the countries who were victims of Chile's military junta. Because of the law lords' judgment that General Pinochet was not immune from prosecution as a former head of state, each warrant should now theoretically be tested on its merits.
Political and diplomatic manoeuvring continued yesterday, with President Eduardo Frei of Chile sending his Foreign Minister to Britain and Spain. Jose Miguel Insulza meets the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, in London today to press for General Pinochet's release before flying on to present his case in Madrid. Yesterday Mr Straw asked for a week's extension of the deadline by which he has to decide whether to allow the Spanish extradition request to proceed.
Last night human-rights groups said he can expect a legal challenge if he decides to send General Pinochet home. A spokesman for Amnesty International said such action could be the subject of a judicial review. Home Office staff say privately that it would be "extraordinarily difficult" for Mr Straw to ignore the law lords' judgment.
The Government would have little to gain politically by agreeing to release General Pinochet at this stage. However, Home Office officials are apprehensive about the health of the general, who is under police guard at the private Grovelands Priory Hospital in north London, and the possibility of it deteriorating during the months of legal actions extradition proceedings will entail.
A source said: "It would be a bit of a disaster if he dies in custody over here. If his condition does get a lot worse it would also give a valid reason for the Home Secretary to use his discretion and release him." Earlier this year the IRA bomb suspect Roisin McAliskey was freed by Mr Straw, using his discretionary powers because of her health.
The Foreign Office has reiterated a warning to Britons not to travel to Chile, where 118 pro and anti-Pinochet protesters were arrested and 10 policemen injured in clashes yesterday. It was rumoured that both sides were stockpiling arms, in an uneasy echo of the events leading up to the coup by General Pinochet against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.
President Frei said in a public broadcast that his government would continue to protest at what it sees as interference by outside powers. "We will not accept pressure from groups whose actions and declarations have only made a difficult situation worse."
Yesterday Michael Howard, shadow foreign secretary, and the former defence secretary Michael Portillo became the latest leading Conservatives to urge Mr Straw to use his discretion and free the general. Mr Howard said he should use his powers to "short-circuit" the extradition process.
Mr Portillo said the arrest of General Pinochet was " indefensible", and drew a comparison with the Government's dealing with the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams. He said: "The Chileans have reached a very delicate settlement ... it's the sort of settlement we've reached with Gerry Adams. I don't like what we've done with Gerry Adams ... but it's our business what we do with Gerry Adams and it's their business what they are doing with General Pinochet."
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