- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2000

LONDON Doctors ruled that Gen. Augusto Pinochet was unfit to stand trial, the government announced yesterday, opening the possibility that the former Chilean leader could win his battle against extradition to Spain.

The Home Office said a medical team that examined the general on Jan. 5 unanimously agreed that he was too ill to face trial for alleged human rights abuses, "and that no change to that position can be expected."

The statement said Home Secretary Jack Straw felt he should not allow the general to be extradited. But it said he would not make a decision until hearing arguments from parties to the case.

The statement did not go beyond declaring the Chilean strongman unfit, saying that details of his condition were disclosed to him but kept "confidential" otherwise. However, the Sunday Times reported in London last weekend that the doctors had found Gen. Pinochet was suffering from a viral infection, diabetes, heart disease and the effects of two mild strokes. His diabetes reportedly has caused a loss of sensation in his hands and feet.

The decision could lead to his release on humanitarian grounds, halting efforts to try him in connection with the disappearances and killings of thousands of Chileans during his 17-year rule there.

The statement read that Mr. Straw "is minded … to take the view that no purpose would be served by continuing the present extradition proceedings and that he should therefore decide not to extradite."

The statement also said Mr. Straw would hear arguments from Spain and other parties to the case before making a final decision. Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also have been invited to submit comment.

The Chilean government welcomed the British statement, while relatives of those who died during the 17-year military dictatorship expressed outrage over the decision.

"The government of Chile expresses its gratitude for the seriousness with which the British government has proceeded in this delicate issue," said Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes.

The news was greeted with protest and support in Chile.

Officials with the Organization of Relatives of Missing Detainees, a group dedicated to dissidents who disappeared after being arrested under the Pinochet dictatorship, said they were disappointed.

"This is a tremendous frustration and sorrow. A wonderful legal process has been frustrated," said Mireya Garcia, vice president of the organization. "We believe that although Pinochet is indeed very old and has problems, he was in shape to stand trial."

Retired army Gen. Rafael Villarroel, a close aide to Gen. Pinochet, said "this is going to be good for Chile, for our fatherland, because a process starts to restore its sovereignty and dignity."

Congressman Alberto Cardemil, also a close associate of the general, called the British decision "a victory for a national cause, a cause of the country."

In Spain, Foreign Ministry spokesman Joaquin Perez Villanueva said the government did not plan to intervene in the judicial process and would continue "to respect the decisions coming from the British government."

There was no immediate word from Judge Baltazar Garzon, whose arrest order resulted in Gen. Pinochet's detention nearly 15 months ago.

Attorney Enrique Santiago said he would request that the Spanish National Court ask British prosecutors for a new medical examination if Britain releases him on humanitarian grounds. Attorney Carlos Slepoy called the medical team's report "a big error which does a lot of harm to the human rights cause."

The 84-year-old Chilean has been under detention in Britain since his arrest in a London hospital nearly 15 months ago. He was arrested on the Spanish warrant for alleged human rights violations committed during his rule in Chile.

Last week's medical exam was done at the Chilean government's request. The general was seen by a neurologist and two geriatric specialists during a seven-hour consultation at Northwick Park Hospital in north London.

In its statement, the Home Office said the Chilean Embassy advised the government on Oct. 14 that Gen. Pinochet's health had deteriorated.

According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded the general, 3,197 persons, mainly Chileans but also some Spaniards, were killed or disappeared after he seized power in a 1973 coup.

Since his arrest, Gen. Pinochet has waged an aggressive fight against being extradited to Spain.

His lawyers have already appealed an Oct. 8 ruling by a London magistrate that he can be extradited. A hearing is scheduled to begin March 20.

Mr. Straw can consider Gen. Pinochet's health in making a final ruling. But even if he were to agree to release the general due to health concerns, Spain could appeal that ruling, further prolonging the general's stay in England.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, one of Gen. Pinochet's most forthright supporters, said Tuesday: "I would trust the home secretary's judgment. He is a very fair man."

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