Anti-Pinochet Campaigners Rally Efforts to Halt Release

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London ( - As the deadline nears for submissions to stop the British government from setting free former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, legal and human rights campaigners stepped up calls Monday for him to stand trial for alleged torture.

And even if the retired general is freed, he faces a mixed reception in Chile, where supporters of a newly-elected president once jailed by Pinochet want him put on trial for abuses suffered by political opponents during his 17-year military rule.

The Spanish government said Monday it had forwarded a judge's request to Home Secretary Jack Straw to allow a second set of medical tests on the general - with Spanish participation - before releasing him from house arrest.

Judge Baltasar Garzon, whose arrest warrant and extradition request secured Pinochet's arrest in Britain 15 months ago, says Straw's ruling flouts the 1984 International Convention against Torture.

Spanish lawyers have asked the European Court of Human Rights to take urgent steps to stop Pinochet from flying home, while a French magistrate has also asked for permission to question him with regard to the disappearance of French nationals in Chile.

British magistrates last year okayed Pinochet's extradition to Spain, where he faces 35 torture charges.

But under pressure from the Chilean government, Straw allowed medical tests on the 84-year-old that he said last Tuesday showed he was too ill to be extradited. Straw gave interested parties seven days to make representations against his decision to free Pinochet.

Human rights activists are vexed that the minister would not make the medical test results public. Straw said Sunday he would prefer the results were released, but blamed Pinochet's lawyers for refusing to do so.

At least one group, Amnesty International, said it may call for a judicial review of the case before the deadline expires at 1700 GMT Tuesday.

After that deadline, according to a Home Office spokesman, Straw would consider any representations he had received and then make an announcement.

As anti-Pinochet campaigners faced the possibility of their target slipping away, two alleged victims of his 1973-1990 regime said Sunday the decision to send him home was wrong.

Addressing a press conference in London organized by the Chile Committee for Justice, the two women, who said they had been tortured and raped by secret policemen during the 1970s, called the decision "bitter irony."

A committee spokesman, Paul May, said that during the course of the investigation into Pinochet, the victims had been "forced to reveal extremely unpleasant and hurtful details about their experience, yet Jack Straw refuses to reveal the medical evidence on which he plans to send the dictator home."

The two women hope to meet a senior police officer to ask that Pinochet be tried in Britain if he is not extradited to Spain.

In Chile, meanwhile, supporters of Ricardo Lagos, a socialist who won the weekend's presidential election run-off, called for Pinochet to stand trial if he returns home.

Followers chanted "Pinochet must be tried" as Lagos delivered a victory speech in front of the presidential palace in Santiago.

Neither Lagos, who was briefly imprisoned during the Pinochet era, nor his opponent Joaquin Lavin, once of member of Pinochet's government, made the extradition episode a major issue in their campaigns.

Lagos is the first socialist to be elected president since Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by Pinochet in a 1973 coup.

The Santiago Times Monday speculated on possible routes the Chilean air force plane sent to bring Pinochet home might take.

"The question of where the plane makes a required fuel stop is crucial, as he could be subject to arrest if new warrants are issued," it said, suggesting that Bermuda, a British dependency in the Atlantic, might be the most likely stopover point.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow