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New Legal Setback for Pinochet

by Gustavo Gonzalez

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(IPS) SANTIAGO -- Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in custody in London, suffered a new legal setback Feb. 15 when a British court ordered the release of a medical report that had asserted he was unfit to stand trial.

The latest decision by the London High Court opened a new phase of legal wrangling in the case on Pinochet's possible extradition to Spain to stand trial for crimes against humanity, and heightened the uncertainty surrounding his probable return to Chile.

The Group of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD) applauded the ruling by the three-judge panel as a victory in the legal saga of the former dictator (1973-90), under police guard in a rented mansion since his October 16, 1998 arrest in London following back surgery.

Around 100 relatives of victims of the dictatorship took to the streets in Santiago to celebrate the decision, described by AFDD President Viviana Diaz as a setback for the "political pressure" Chilean officials have exerted on the British and Spanish governments in favor of Pinochet's return to Chile, on the argument that he should be tried at home.

A three-judge panel of the London High Court ruled that British Home Secretary Jack Straw must allow authorities from Spain, France, Switzerland and Belgium to see the Jan. 5 medical reports that found Pinochet unfit to stand trial.

Based on the exams carried out by an independent medical team, Straw announced Jan. 11 that he was "inclined" to release 84-year-old Pinochet on humanitarian grounds due to his poor state of health and advanced age.

Spanish Foreign Minister Abel Matutes has said that he would not contest any decision to release the former dictator.

Pinochet was originally arrested in London on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon. The judge is also preparing cases against other former de facto rulers from the Southern Cone of the Americas, whom he means to try in connection with the disappearance of Spanish citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Belgian government and six human rights groups, led by the London-based Amnesty International, had requested a legal review of Straw's announcement and demanded access to the medical exams.

The exams, kept secret up to now, must be given to the governments of Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland -- which are all demanding Pinochet's extradition -- "under conditions of strict confidentiality," according to today's ruling.

The four countries have until Feb. 22 to file their comments with Straw, who will then make a decision.

Pinochet has diabetes and suffered two minor strokes last fall
Reading the ruling, Lord Justice Simon Brown warned that at any moment Straw could use his authority to order the retired Chilean general's release.

But Straw's attorney, Jonathan Sumption, said the official would not make any decision before the four governments presented their observations.

Brown said the ruling was aimed at expediting a decision. But he stressed the need for the greatest possible transparency in this case, perhaps more than in any other.

There is a slight chance that Straw could change his mind on the basis of challenges to the medical reports that could be filed by the four states in question, said Eduardo Contreras, the sponsor of several of the 58 lawsuits filed against Pinochet in Chilean courts.

Contreras and other human rights lawyers pointed out that it was yet to be seen whether the judicial review accepted by the British High Court opened the door to new appeals in the courts, even if Straw finally decides to allow Pinochet to return to Chile.

After its initial disappointment over the ruling, the Augusto Pinochet Foundation said it could have a positive effect by pulling the case out of the legal sphere and returning it to the political sphere -- a reference to the British government's authority to release Pinochet, through a decision by Straw.

But the executive secretary of the Foundation, retired general Luis Cortes Villa, insisted that any additional delay would lead to a further deterioration in the health of Pinochet, who he said was "objectively" in no condition to survive a long drawn-out trial.

Socialist Deputy Fany Pollarolo and AFDD secretary Mireya Garcia said, however, that the case should be removed from the terrain of "political pressures" and returned to the legal sphere, where it should have stayed in the first place.

The first official reaction by the Chilean government came from the minister of the general secretariat of the presidency, Jose Miguel Insulza, who said the ruling basically confirmed Straw's authority to release Pinochet, and thus did not imply any major change in the case, but merely a delay.

According to an official Chilean government report, over 3,000 people were assassinated or forcibly disappeared by the Pinochet dictatorship, which overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973.

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Albion Monitor February 13, 2000 (

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