LONDON -- Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet lost another key legal battle yesterday when a British magistrate ruled that he can be extradited to Spain to face charges of torture and conspiracy during his 17-year rule.
The ailing, 83-year-old former dictator issued a defiant written protest of innocence, while his opponents outside the packed courtroom, and in Chile and Spain, celebrated a triumph in their improbable bid to bring a former head of state to justice.
It could be months before the case leaves Britain. Pinochet's lawyers have 15 days to file an appeal and could embark on a lengthy legal process through England's High Court and House of Lords, before a final decision by Home Secretary Jack Straw.
Straw, who has broad discretion in extradition matters, can dismiss the case on humanitarian grounds, but only after the legal process has concluded.
Pinochet is a diabetic with a pacemaker. He has reportedly suffered two minor strokes recently.
At his own request, he wasn't in court when magistrate Ronald Bartle ruled that he could be extradited on all 35 charges filed by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon.
Through his British lawyer, Pinochet issued a withering attack against his foes, claiming, "Spain has not produced a single piece of evidence which shows that I am guilty."
"Not only that; I believe Spain has not properly investigated any of the crimes and Spain does not even have jurisdiction to try me," said Pinochet, who remained under armed guard in a suburban London home.
"It acts in violation of the sovereignty of Chile. The events in Chile have nothing whatsoever to do with Spain. It has long been clear that my extradition is politically motivated and being pursued purely for political reasons."
Yet there was celebration when the verdict was reached, as hundreds cheered outside the Bow Street Magistrates Court in central London.
"This historic decision brings us one step closer to the day when Pinochet will have to answer in a court of law for his terrible crimes," said Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.
"Pinochet's wall of impunity has crumbled. The thousands of people who were killed, brutalized and 'disappeared' by his regime, and their families, are finally finding justice."
In Geneva, United Nations human rights director Mary Robinson said, "The message of a year of proceedings in the Pinochet case and of today's ruling is clear. Those who commit, order or tolerate torture can no longer be sure of a peaceful retirement."
In Spain, the government pledged to let justice run its course. In Chile, Pinochet opponents rejoiced; some of his supporters wept and burned British and Spanish flags, while pro-Pinochet senators condemned the ruling as "inexcusable foreign interference."
"The facts and attitudes of the foreign authorities involved in this conflict have meant permanent and reiterated abuse to the nation's dignity and sovereignty that, on occasion, have gone beyond the limit of rudeness," the senators said in a statement.
Pinochet was arrested last Oct. 16, while he was in London recovering from back surgery.
The case brought wrenching debate to Chile and ignited a political controversy in Britain, where former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher emerged as one of Pinochet's staunch allies.
In recent days, Thatcher voiced her support for the general, claiming he had helped save British lives during the Falklands War. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair described Pinochet as "unspeakable."
Garzon used his powers as an investigative judge to pursue Pinochet, who seized power in Chile in a bloody 1973 military coup. There are allegations that up to 4,000 people disappeared or were killed during his reign.
Pinochet's attorneys mounted a months-long battle against his detention, but failed to gain his freedom.
In March, Britain's House of Lords drastically limited Pinochet's liability, saying he could be committed only for offenses carried out after Dec. 8, 1988, when the international Torture Convention became binding on Spain, Britain and Chile.
That meant only two charges survived the original November 1998 extradition request. Garzon compiled further allegations of post-1988 tortures. Pinochet's lawyers argued that the 33 additional charges should be struck out.
Bartle let them stand, ruling they were "supplementary to and in amplification of the conduct alleged against Senator Pinochet, namely his involvement in acts of torture and conspiracy to commit such acts."