The day Straw let his old enemy off the hook

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Indy Politics

As a student activist, Jack Straw cut his political teeth leading demonstrations against the iniquities of the Pinochet regime in Chile. It was with supreme irony that, as Home Secretary three decades later, he saved the ailing former dictator from extradition to stand trial on torture charges.

General Pinochet arrived in Britain in September 1998 for minor back surgery but ended up remaining 18 months as lawyers argued over his fate. While recovering from the operation he was arrested by police acting on a warrant from the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon in connection with the death of Spanish nationals in Chile during his rule.

Reaction was divided between anger and joy in his home nation and legal controversy erupted in Britain with senior judges unable to agree on whether, as a former head of state, he was immune from prosecution.

By mid-1999 it appeared that General Pinochet, who was under house arrest on the exclusive Wentworth estate in Surrey, would face a series of charges. Although 34 allegations of torture were detailed against him, he denied any direct role in human rights abuses and claimed he was "England's only political prisoner". Baroness Thatcher was among the loudest voices calling for his release.

On the first anniversary of his arrival - by which time Switzerland, Belgium and France had also lodged extradition requests - he was excused from appearing in court on grounds of poor health, having suffered two minor strokes. In his absence, magistrates ruled he could be extradited, pending final approval from Mr Straw, who asked for medical tests to be performed on the general.

The results concluded that Pinochet had "extensive brain damage", suffered memory loss and had difficulties expressing himself or understanding complicated phrases.

After receiving the doctors' verdict, the Home Secretary announced to uproar in January 2000 that he was "minded" to release the octagenarian because of his poor health. Several countries tried to contest the decision but, on 2 March 2000, a Chilean Air Force jet took off from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire with the general on board.

Mr Straw told MPs: "I was driven to the conclusion that a trial of the charges against Senator Pinochet, however desirable, was simply no longer possible."

Chile Democratico, a group of Chilean exiles in Britain, said the Home Secretary had "failed the cause of human rights" and accused the British and Chilean governments of a "stitch-up".

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