Pinochet must answer extra torture allegations

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The former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was yesterday formally committed to face extradition to Spain on charges of human rights abuse.

The former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was yesterday formally committed to face extradition to Spain on charges of human rights abuse.

The historic case at Bow Street magistrates' court, London, is seen as a severe defeat for General Pinochet. The deputy chief stipendiary magistrate, Ronald Bartle, rejected claims by the general's lawyers that the Spanish charges should be cut to one count of torture. Instead he ruled that extradition should take place on all 35 charges of torture and conspiracy to torture presented by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon. Mr Bartle also ruledthat relatives of "disappeared" political prisoners had suffered from "mental torture". His ruling will allow the Spanish authorities to extend the scope of the prosecution to allege that the general used torture as an instrument of state policy.

His lawyers are expected to appeal to the High Court, the first stage in a possible lengthy series of legal manoeuvres. Ultimately the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will have to decide whether to allow the extradition to proceed, or use his discretionary powers to free the 83-year-old former dictator.

The court decision fuelled the continuing political and diplomatic controversy which has raged ever since the general's arrest and detention in Britain last October. Baroness Thatcher led a succession of Conservatives in campaigning for the general to be freed, and made an impassioned speech at the party conference in Blackpool condemning the Government for its alleged involvement in his arrest.

The general, who, because of ill health, was not in court, issued a statement claiming he was the victim of political persecution. "As the former president of the Republic of Chile and senator I declare that I am not guilty of the crimes of which I am accused. Spain has not produced a single piece of evidence which shows I am guilty. Not only that, I believe that Spain has not properly investigated any of these crimes and Spain does not even have jurisdiction to try me. It acts in violation of the sovereignty of Chile. The events in Chile have nothing whatsoever to do with Spain. It has long been clear that my extradition is politically motivated and being pursued clearly for political reasons."

Supporters of the former dictator also took up the theme. The former chancellor Lord Lamont of Lerwick referred to Tony Blair's description of General Pinochet as "unspeakable" in his speech to the Labour Party conference last week and said: "It is very difficult to believe that General Pinochet is going to be fairly treated."

But the ruling was greeted with jubilation by General Pinochet's opponents and human rights campaigners, who said it represented a watershed in the world-wide struggle for human rights. In London, Spain and Chile, crowds of anti-Pinochet demonstrators erupted into cheers on hearing the decision.

In a statement the former Irish president Mary Robinson, now United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "The message of ... today's historic ruling is clear: those who commit, order or tolerate torture can no longer be sure of a peaceful retirement."

In Madrid Judge Garzon is said to have been "highly satisfied" with the decision which, he believes, brings General Pinochet one step closer to a trial in Spain.