Straw may release Pinochet

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THE GOVERNMENT last night hinted that it might free General Augusto Pinochet on "compassionate grounds" as the diplomatic row deepened over his arrest.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced in the Commons that he will take into account "compassionate circum- stances" when he decides on whether to allow the ailing 82-year-old former Chilean dictator to be extradited to Spain on charges of mass murder.

He told MPs in a written statement that in exercising his discretion under the 1989 Extradition Act, he would consider "whether the offences are of a political character, and any compassionate circumstances. This will not be a political decision. I am exercising my statutory responsibilities".

The pressure for General Pinochet to be freed as a compassionate act was increased by Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who called for him to be treated humanely. Dr Carey hoped and was confident "the Government will pay attention to the personal aspects of this, and be compassionate in this situation".

Dr Carey said he was sure the Government would pay attention to Baroness Thatcher's call for General Pinochet to be freed "forthwith". "But I want to say that from a Christian point of view the moral and spiritual aspect of this hopefully will be considered by the Government," he told the Jimmy Young programme on Radio 2.

The terms of the Home Secretary's remit were seen at Westminster as a way out of an increasingly embarrassing diplomatic minefield, after Lady Thatcher's remarks threatened to sour the talks next week with President Carlos Menem of Argentina, the first by an Argentinian leader since the 1982 Falklands War.

Mr Straw disclosed that General Pinochet, who recently had tea with Lady Thatcher, had visited the UK five times in the past five years: in February and June, 1994, October 1995, and October 1996.

Lady Thatcher said it would be "disgraceful" to preach reconciliation with Argentina, which killed 250 British people during the Falklands conflict, while keeping General Pinochet under arrest even though he had helped Britain in the war and saved "so many British lives".

That caused outrage in Argentina - which has been carefully sounding out opinion in Britain on raising the sovereignty of the Falklands during the meeting - and disarray in William Hague's leadership.

The international row moved to the High Court yesterday with General Pinochet's lawyers arguing that the British government has broken the law by arresting and detaining the former dictator.

In what is said to be a landmark case, judges began to hear an application for a writ of habeas corpus and leave to appeal to seek a judicial review over the decision to detain him, before adjourning the hearing until Monday.

General Pinochet's counsel, Clive Nicholls QC, an extradition specialist, will argue that the decision to place him under hospital arrest was illegal on a number of counts.

His lawyers will also argue that even if General Pinochet was guilty of the alleged murders he should be entitled to immunity under the Vienna Convention and the Immunity Act, as the actions were carried out in his role as head of state.

He received "continuing immunity" even after he stepped down from that post, it will be claimed. The lawyers will also maintain that under the circumstances the alleged murders are not extraditable under the 1989 Extradition Act.

Labour left-wingers, led by Tony Benn, tabled a Commons motion congratulated Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, for his criticism of General Pinochet and urging the Government to ensure that the ex-dictator is prosecuted for his crimes.