Chile attacked over attempt to interfere in Pinochet trial

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ATTEMPTS TO hustle General Augusto Pinochet back to Santiago and sidestep a trial in Spain for his alleged crimes against humanity drew fire from the Spanish judiciary yesterday and angered human rights activists.

The Spanish judge heading the efforts to extradite General Pinochet from Britain joined a chorus of protest against a Chilean government proposal to take the case to arbitration. Arbitration could "affect the principle of judicial independence," Judge Baltasar Garzon told the Spanish Foreign Minister Abel Matutes adding: "This court continues with proceedings against Augusto Pinochet on charges of genocide, terrorism, torture and forced disappearance of people."

Joan Ponce, a lawyer who is representing the families of some of the 1,200 Chileans who disappeared during the general's rule said: "This is a criminal case in the Spanish and United Kingdom courts. The Chilean authorities are trying to free an alleged criminal without trial. The Spanish government has not and cannot interfere in this judicial case, despite political pressure coming from Chile."

A Home Office spokesmanconfirmed that the 83-year-old general would be free to leave Britain the moment the Spanish government withdrew its request for extradition. But civil liberties lawyers in Britain said they would press for General Pinochet to be prosecuted in this country under the international convention on torture.

An Amnesty International spokesman said that, even though some military officers in Chile last month faced tribunals for ordering "Death Caravans" against political opponents in the Seventies, there was little prospect of the former dictator being challenged over torture cases if he returned to his native country. His "sovereign immunity" would give him a "wall of impunity", the Amnesty spokesman said.

General Pinochet, who has been under house arrest for the past ten months, faces an extradition trial which is scheduled to begin on 27 September. In Santiago, Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes demanded that Chile be allowed to send an observer to oversee the legality of the extradition process

Mr Valdes also requested that a Chilean doctor be sent to attend General Pinochet, who is said to be recovering badly from the spinal operation which brought him to England in the first place. Furthermore, Chile requested that the conditions of General Pinochet's house arrest be eased enough to allow him the chance to stroll to an adjacent building, if accompanied by two policemen.