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Pinochet Heads Homeward; European Trials Unlikely

By Bill Glauber

Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet headed home Thursday a free yet broken man after British Home Secretary Jack Straw blocked his extradition and ended a contentious 16-month saga that overturned legal conventions, hampered diplomacy, and divided world opinion.

Pinochet, 84, who suffered several strokes last fall, took off in a medically-equipped Chilean plane from a British air force base hours after Straw said the former dictator was medically unfit to stand trial on human rights charges.

Straw thus put a final refusal to unprecedented extradition requests from Spain, Belgium, France and Switzerland, which sought to try Pinochet for crimes committed during his bloody, 17-year rule that began when he seized power in a 1973 coup that toppled an elected Marxist president.

Straw declared that the Pinochet case had helped to firmly establish that human rights abuses of the sort attributed to Pinochet’s regime may be tried anywhere in the world.

He said the case “established, beyond question, the principle that those who commit human rights abuses in one country cannot assume that they are safe elsewhere. That will be the lasting legacy of this case.”

But the Home Secretary, a former left-wing student leader, acknowledged “the practical consequences of refusing to extradite Senator Pinochet to Spain is that he will probably not be tried anywhere.”

“Ultimately, I was driven to the conclusion that a trial of the charges against Senator Pinochet, however desirable, was simply no longer possible,” Straw told Britain’s House of Commons in a statement that was greeted with cries of “shame” and “disgrace” from some members of his own Labor party.

After Straw’s ruling, British prosecutors declined to take up the case and no appeals were filed.

Thus, Pinochet’s failing health trumped the legal arguments. Last October, eight days after Pinochet was excused from appearing before a local magistrate, Chile formally asked for the general’s release on health grounds.

A four-member medical panel examined Pinochet in January, and based on its report, Straw said he was inclined to block the extradition. He gave interested parties and governments time to carry on their case in the British courts. The countries seeking Pinochet’s extradition lodged opinions from their doctors questioning the report’s conclusions.

In a letter, drafted by a government official and sent to the Spanish ambassador in Britain, Straw’s reasons were detailed for refusing to order Pinochet’s extradition. Other letters were sent to ambassadors from France, Switzerland and Belgium.

The letter to the Spanish ambassador said the British medical team concluded that Pinochet “would not at present be mentally capable of meaningful participation in a trial,” and said “the disabilities identified in the medical report are due to widespread brain damage.”

The letter said “Pinochet would be unable to follow the process of a trial sufficiently to instruct counsel. He would have difficulty in understanding the content and implications of questions put to him and would have inadequate insight into this difficulty. He would have difficulty in making himself understood in replying to questions.”