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Thursday, 2 March, 2000, 09:02 GMT
Pinochet shadow over Straw's career

Jack Straw visited Chile before Pinochet seized power
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

The Pinochet affair dogged Jack Straw right from the day that the former Chilean dictator arrived in Britain in 1998 and woke to find his private hospital bed surrounded by police, arresting him for alleged crimes against humanity.

But with the decision to release him and end the extradition process, the fallout will have far reaching consequences - not only for the Home Secretary but also for extradition arrangements around the world.

Mr Straw's decision raises numerous questions about the legality of offering immunity for ex-heads of state accused of torture and murder in their home countries.

And furthermore, it will strain relations between Britain and the countries seeking Pinochet's extradition - governments which have commended the Home Secretary's handling of the case in its earlier stages.

And, inevitably, many will say that it raises a question mark over the Home Secretary's judgement and handling of the entire issue. How ironic then that a man from Mr Straw's old left-wing student activist past should have come back to haunt him 30 years later.

Student activist

Mr Straw's "relationship" with General Pinochet can be dated back to the 1960s, when the then student was active in university politics.

In 1966, Mr Straw visited Chile four years before the Marxist leader Salvador Allende came to power.

Mr Straw denies ever taking part in any political activity while there, but there is little doubt he was a supporter of the Allende regime.

General Pinochet and the man he ousted Salvador Allende
More than three decades later, it ultimately fell to him to decide the fate of the man who led the bloody coup against Allende and in which this hero of the left died.

And his actions have seen him become a hate figure for exactly the sort of left-wing groups he once appeared to champion.

By the book

More significantly for his future career, however, he has also landed the government with one controversy after another.

He has insisted that, from the start of the affair, he has played it "by the book" and he has certainly been constrained by the quasi-judicial nature of his job.

But his critics - led by the likes of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the former Chancellor Norman Lamont - argue that, throughout the 17-month period since Pinochet's arrest, he has had discretionary powers which he has either failed to use, or has misused.

They claim the first mistake came in September 1998 when Pinochet first arrived in the country.

No action was taken against him until 16 October when, after undergoing back surgery in London, he was arrested at the request of a Spanish judge for the alleged murder of Spanish citizens during his time as Chilean leader.

Mr Straw insists Britain had to act, but his critics claim this was the first point at which he should have intervened and immediately returned Pinochet to his home country.

No immunity

Spain finally issued a formal extradition warrant on 6 November which sparked a huge row over whether former sovereigns could be held accountable for actions they took when in power.

Pinochet and his supporters argued he was immune and that to overrule that immunity would set a precedent that could have had far reaching and unforeseen consequences.

It was argued that, like the UK's fragile peace deal in Northern Ireland, Chile should be allowed to forge peace in its own way without outside interference.

The affair then entered a protracted legal procedure which, after a series of appeals, saw the ground-breaking decision by the Law Lords that former sovereigns did not automatically have immunity.

Once again Mr Straw was accused of using his powers to aid the decision.

Finally, the Home Secretary had to rule on whether the former dictator was unfit to stand trial and should, after all, be freed to return to Chile.

Overnight he went from being the champion of the human rights groups to their pet hate.

He was accused of looking for the easy way out by using medical reports as an excuse to get Pinochet off his hands. And even that decision was challenged.

There is little doubt that Mr Straw was bound to be damned by one side or the other, depending how he acted at key points during the affair which has proved to be long and embarrassing.

His supporters insist he has done his utmost to stick within the letter of the law.

His opponents, however, believe he has been motivated either by former allegiances or, on the other hand, the desire to get out from under the problem.

Either way the long-running and messy wrangle has landed the government with the sort of negative publicity it usually does everything to avoid.

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20 Jan 00 |  The Pinochet file
Special report: The Pinochet file
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