LONDON -- British Home Secretary Jack Straw authorized extradition proceedings against Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet yesterday, triggering a dramatic battle that could lead to the ex-dictator's surrender to Spain to face trial for crimes commited during his 17-year regime.
The 83-year-old Pinochet, who is wanted in Spain and several other countries on murder, torture and genocide charges
stemming from his 1973-1990 rule, is due to appear in a high-security London court tomorrow as the extradition process unfolds.
With appeals, the ground-breaking human rights case could take months to resolve and will likely end up back on Straw's desk for a final verdict.
Straw's decision yesterday incited furious reaction, with Chile recalling its ambassador from Britain, a longtime ally. Asked how he thought the decision would affect relations between the two countries, Chilean ambassador Mario Artaza said, "Time will tell."
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had a close relationship with the Chilean dictator, called Straw's decision "a grave mistake."
"Neither he nor the government can hide behind legal posturing," she said in a statement. "This was a political decision and it represents a failure of political leadership."
But human rights lawyers, members of Britain's ruling Labor party, and exiles who have spent years trying to get Pinochet into a courtroom, hailed the decision.
"We were so used to losing all the time, but things are changing," said Nicole Drouilly of the Relatives to Disappeared. "For years, political considerations were more important than the rights of victims. But not anymore."
The ruling was yet another unpredictable twist in a case that has defied conventional wisdom and all but rewritten the ground rules for former dictators. Welcomed to London as a VIP in September, Pinochet now remains under armed guard in an exclusive suburb of London.
While recovering from back surgery at a London hospital in October, Pinochet was detained by British police acting on a provisional arrest warrant issued by Spanish judges investigating thousands of deaths and disappearances that occurred in Chile during and after the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power.
A London court ruled that Pinochet, as a former head of state, had sovereign immunity from prosecution. But the decision was reversed by Britain's top court, the House of Lords, and under British law, Straw had to decide if the case should proceed.
"The Spanish request for his extradition will now be considered by the courts," Straw said.
Inevitably, the decision was up to Straw, who enjoys wide legal latitude as the Home Secretary in the Labor government. He also faced stiff pressure from Labor's left-wing supporters, many of whom grew to political maturity as Pinochet rose to power.
In a written reply to a question from Parliament, Straw said that Pinochet's age, health or status did not excuse him from court proceedings. But he also ruled that not all of Spain's charges could go before the British courts.
He issued "an authority to proceed" on Spain's extradition request on offenses equivalent to British crimes of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, torture, conspiracy to torture, hostage-taking and conspiracy to take hostages.
But in a concession to Pinochet, Straw ruled that the charges of genocide and murder did not meet Britain's legal requirements for extradition.
Labor's Clive Soley hailed the decision and said, "I think the message is clear to all dictators and potential dictators that you can assume the rule of law will now be applied."
But Sir Norman Fowler, who serves as the Conservatives shadow home secretary, said that Straw caved into party pressure and "missed a golden opportunity to bring this sorry affair to the end."
Pinochet's route through the British court system begins tomorrow at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court, a maximum security courthouse attached to a prison, and a long-time venue for cases involving alleged Irish terrorists.
Pub Date: 12/10/98