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Tuesday, 8 February, 2000, 15:56 GMT
Pinochet opponents win legal point

Pinochet's case continues to draw protests

Opponents of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, have won a minor victory in their legal battle to ensure he stands trial on torture charges.

The High Court in London has ruled that it will now consider the merits of the case being put forward by representatives of six human rights groups and Belgium, who are seeking access to confidential medical reports on the general's state of health.

The pinochet File

Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has already said that - on the basis of the medical records - he is "minded" to allow General Pinochet to return home to Chile.

Campaigners want the 84-year-old general to be extradited to Spain to answer alleged human rights abuse charges.

The plaintiffs argue that they cannot mount a meaningful challenge unless they are allowed to see the medical reports.

Lord Justice Simon Brown, sitting with Mr Justice Latham and Mr Justice Dyson, stressed the reason for allowing a full hearing was to save another "unfortunate" tribunal from having to deal with the complex challenge all over again.

However the judges conceded that it might now be open for Belgium and the human rights groups, if they eventually lose, to take their challenge all the way up to the House of Lords.

General Pinochet General Pinochet: Jet on standby to fly him home to Chile
The applicants are seeking a ruling that Mr Straw acted unlawfully and unfairly when he refused to disclose details of the medical report which prompted him to declare that Pinochet was unfit to stand trial on torture charges and therefore should not be extradited to Spain.

Tuesday's decision by the three judges implies that at least the groups have "an arguable case" for a full hearing.

Last week a High Court judge sitting alone threw out the application, ruling that Mr Straw had acted "lawfully, fairly and rationally".

'Small victory'

Legal experts are now wondering whether it could be months before a final decision is made in the Pinochet case.

A spokesman for Amnesty International hailed the decision. He said: "We very much welcome the fact that the hearing will now go on to consider the merits of the case.

"It's particularly important for us because clearly we want to put our argument before the court, which is that it flouts natural justice not to provide the information in the medical reports, particularly to the governments seeking natural justice."

Jet on standby

General Pinochet was arrested during a visit to Britain in October 1998 while recuperating from back surgery in hospital.

He has spent 16 months fighting extradition to Spain.

Mr Straw has undertaken not to make a final ruling until the matter has cleared the courts.

But if the action fails, the general could be given the green light to leave the country within a matter of hours.

A Chilean jet is on standby at RAF Brize Norton waiting to take the general home if he is released. Meanwhile, he is expected to remain under house arrest at the Wentworth Estate in Surrey.

The human rights groups involved in the current court case are Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Redress Trust, the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared, Justicia and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

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See also:
03 Feb 00 |  Americas
Chilean lawsuit against Pinochet
31 Jan 00 |  UK
Pinochet appeal fails
31 Jan 00 |  UK
Pinochet supporters rejoice
26 Jan 00 |  Europe
Why Belgium cares about Pinochet
30 Jan 00 |  UK
Chilean plane waits for Pinochet
29 Jan 00 |  Americas
Ex-prisoners accuse Pinochet of torture
27 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Belgium justifies Pinochet challenge
26 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Pinochet medical test challenge

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