The Pinochet Decision: Extradition process could take months

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The Independent Online
ON THE morning of Wednesday 25 November, Jack Straw's staff were preparing the statement he would be making to the Commons. The Home Secretary would be saying that since the law lords had upheld General Augusto Pinochet's immunity from prosecution, there was no choice but to let him return to Chile.

Just after 2pm, Home Office telephones "went berserk". Instead of rubber-stamping the Lord Chief Justice's decision, the law lords had ruled by three to two that the former dictator could be extradited to Spain.

The Commons central lobby filled up with MPs, lawyers, former political prisoners and journalists as they flooded down from the Lords in a high state of excitement. Outside, relatives of people tortured and disappeared under General Pinochet's regime cheered and cried. Supporters of the general walked away grim-faced.

A few miles away, at Queen Anne's Gate, a sombre Jack Straw and his advisers were facing the decision of whether to let the extradition request from Spain go ahead or abort it. Either decision would come in for fierce criticism.

In reality, Mr Straw's options were limited. He could stop the legal process only under very specific circumstances. Thesafest one would have been to release General Pinochet, who is 83 and had undergone a back operation, on compassionate grounds. Even human rights groups privately admitted they would find it difficult to kick up a fuss if he were to be sent home because he was very ill.

The lobbying started immediately. The day after the Lords judgment, Jose Miguel Insulza, the Chilean Foreign Minister, left for London. On arrival he met the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and assured him that if the general were returned to Chile, he would be tried for crimes committed in his homeland. Much was made of the fact that Mr Insulza is a socialist who had been in exile during the Pinochet era. During his visit he met senior officials at Downing Street, but not the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Neither did he meet Mr Straw.

The Chileans were not the only outside power leaning on the Foreign Office. The Americans were keen not to have a public trial of one of their former pet dictators.

After General Pinochet's High Court victory, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, ordered that his legal costs, about pounds 380,000 at the time, should be paid from public funds, a decision that caused outrage. After the reversal in the Lords the former dictator was faced with paying his own legal way, running at pounds 12,000 a day. A party of sympathisers was organised, with many of the members having links to Baroness Thatcher. Funds were also gathered by supporters in Chile .

Human rights pressure groups were also lobbying the Home Secretary, pointing out that for General Pinochet to face justice in Chile the constitution would have to be changed. On stepping down from power he had appointed himself life senator and made sure he was protected by immunity.

On 1 December, Grovelands Priory Hospital in North London, where the general had been staying under police guard, asked him to leave, pointing out that he no longer needed specialist medical care. The compassion option was fading away for Mr Straw.

The general moved to a five-bedroom house at the exclusive Wentworth Estate in Virginia Water, Surrey, where one neighbour commented: "It's like having Hitler move in next door."

The CPS had asked for 48 hours' notice of the Home Secretary's decision before the Friday deadline. That became due yesterday. In the afternoon, lawyers for Amnesty International appeared at the High Court asking that any decision by Mr Straw to stop the extradition proceedings should be deferred while they prepared grounds for judicial review. They failed, but that became immaterial with the Home Secretary's decision in favour of extradition.

The general's legal team, solicitors Kingsley Napley and counsel Clive Nicholls QC, can now appeal for leave to apply for a judicial review of the Home Secretary's decision. If this is embarked on, they can be before the High Court sometime today.

Tomorrow General Pinochet is due to appear before Belmarsh magistrates' court, in south London, to answer the arrest warrant he was served at the London Clinic, in Harley Street, on 16 October. The purpose would be to commit the general for extradition hearings.

The full extradition hearings could last months. If the magistrates decide to send the general to Spain, his lawyers will have another opportunity for appeal, to the High Court and then the House of Lords.

The case will return finally to Mr Straw for him to give his authorisation for extradition. If he decides to do so, the general's lawyers will have one chance for appeal.

Lawyers for human rights pressure groups and torture victims can appeal for leave to apply for judicial review if in the future the Home Secretary overrules a magistrates' decision to extradite General Pinochet. The whole process is likely to take many painful months.