Pinochet challenge rejected by judge

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General Augusto Pino-chet's efforts to avoid deportation to Spain to face torture charges were dealt a serious blow yesterday when a judge refused to let him challenge his extradition.

General Augusto Pino-chet's efforts to avoid deportation to Spain to face torture charges were dealt a serious blow yesterday when a judge refused to let him challenge his extradition.

Mr Justice Ognall, in the High Court, ruled against a judicial review of the Home Secretary's decision to approve extradition, saying he had "misgivings" over the arguments put forward by General Pinochet's lawyers. The judge also took the exceptional step of ordering him to pay Jack Straw's legal costs.

The blow to GeneralPinochet's efforts to avoid extradition was made more severe by the court's ruling that his challenge was "premature" and that to allow it to go ahead "would needlessly disrupt the extradition process and postpone the machinery which will afford the applicant [Pinochet] every proper opportunity to advance his case and protect his position".

General Pinochet had applied for the court to determine whether Mr Straw had "misdirected himself" and behaved "irrationally" in reviewing his decision to authorise extradition proceedings on charges of torture and conspiracy to torture. This followed a House of Lords judgement on March 24, which ruled that the general had immunity to allegations concerning his conduct before December 1988, reducing the number of charges faced by the general from 32 to only two. During yesterday's three- hour hearing it emerged that the Government has not ruled out prosecuting the former Chilean dictator in this country. Jonathan Sumption QC, for Mr Straw, said information the Government had received from Amnesty International alleging human rights crimes was not sufficient in itself to bring a prosecution in this country but that more might be submitted later.

The judge told the court that the Chilean government had sent two diplomatic letters to Mr Straw, one as recently as May 20, asking him to send the general home so that he could help with its own criminal investigations into torture allegations. The second letter accused Mr Straw of "erring in law and acting unreasonably" when authorising the latest extradition proceedings. The general's lawyers said this amounted to a formal request for extradition, which the Home Secretary needed to consider against that already made by the Spanish authorities.

That argument was rejected by Mr Sumption who said that if the Chilean government seriously intended to make a formal application for extradition it should do so. The judge's comments yesterday were the first real evidence of growing judicial impatience at the speed of the extradition proceedings. Specifically naming and numbering the previous applications and hearings taken up by the case, the judge added: "This may mark only the beginning of what may become only an extended forensic journey."

After the hearing, Michael Caplan, the solicitor advising the general, said that there was a possibility that General Pinochet might make a further application in front of three High Court judges on the same grounds.

Mr Caplan also acknowledged that the case could run for a further two years. Andy McEntee, chairman of the Amnesty International board, said that the arguments put forward on behalf of the general were for the "consumption of the Chilean public" and designed to show British justice in a poor light.