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British Magistrate Will Decide Pinochet Extradition on Friday

By Anthony Faiola

A British magistrate will decide Friday whether Augusto Pinochet can be extradited to Madrid, where a Spanish magistrate wants him tried for crimes allegedly committed during his 17-year rule in Chile. But even if the decision goes against the former dictator, Chilean authorities are trying to build a case for his release based on humanitarian concerns over his failing health.

In its attempt to win Pinochet’s release, the Chilean government has cited mainly national sovereignty grounds and has pledged to put him on trial here, but thus far without success. So it has taken a new tack, stressing that Pinochet’s health -- he is 83 -- has deteriorated alarmingly and that his death abroad may have the unwanted effect of turning him into a martyr back home, according to Chilean Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes.

If the British magistrate rules in favor of Pinochet, Chilean authorities hope the new initiative will allow them to circumvent a promised appeal by the Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzon, that could keep Pinochet in London. And if the ruling goes against Pinochet, the new strategy may be his best chance to avoid months of legal appeals-and perhaps the trial in Madrid that Garzon is seeking.

“Nothing else the Chilean government has done to free Pinochet has worked,” said Ricardo Israel, director of the University of Chile’s Political Science Institute. “So it has come down to requesting mercy. ... Everyone sees this as the last best effort to get him freed.”

Pinochet, the most notorious of South America’s military dictators of the 1970s and ’80s, was arrested while visiting Britain almost a year ago, after Garzon requested Pinochet’s extradition to try him in Spain for some of an estimated 3,000 killings and missing-persons cases blamed on his government. Since then, although his age and health have often been cited in legal arguments for his release, they have never been the focus of the Chilean government or Pinochet’s lawyers.

Now that is changing. Valdes said in an interview that the stress of legal proceedings and detention have made Pinochet’s medical condition “potentially fatal.”