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Wednesday, December 9, 1998 Published at 18:26 GMT

UK Politics

Former student leader's toughest decision

Jack Straw faced a no-win situation

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Jack Straw's ruling to allow extradition proceedings to continue against General Pinochet may turn out to be the most difficult decision he will take as home secretary.

The pinochet File
He was in a no-win situation - certain to attract the wrath of the left if he returned the former dictator to Chile, and equally bound to be condemned by the right if he gave the green light to extradition.

The responses which followed immediately after the decision were predictable.

Baroness Thatcher and William Hague accused him of cowardice and caving in to his own left-wingers and his past student activist instincts.

And his action was branded "polytechnic politics" by his opponents in the Commons. Chile immediately recalled its ambassador to London, plunging relations between the two countries to a new low.

New era

But human rights activists praised his "bravery" and hailed a new era in international justice. Dictators across the globe should now fear the full weight of international law, they claimed.

Labour MPs, who were all informed of the decision on their official pagers at 4.30pm, were delighted at the decision.

Mr Straw had always insisted his decision would be purely legal and would not be influenced by political considerations.

No one really believed politics wouldn't play a part, but the home secretary's decision enables him to insist that he acted purely in a judicial manner.

He took the unusual step of publishing his reasons, and stressed the existence of the European convention on extradition which Britain and Spain are signed up to.

He also ruled the general is fit to stand trial, ruling out the likelihood of an appeal against trial on health grounds.

No votes

Mr Straw probably calculated that he would face less damaging attacks for allowing the extradition to go ahead than if he had allowed the general to return home.

Relations with Spain and Europe more generally would undoubtedly have suffered if he had refused the extradition.

The cynical even claim there are no Labour votes to be had in releasing General Pinochet.

The general became a symbolic hate figure for the left, particularly students, during the 1970s after he overthrew the democratically elected socialist administration of President Allende.

Mr Straw was president of the National Union of Students between 1969 and 1971, just two years before General Pinochet launched his coup.

But any suggestion he has liberal leanings have been blown aside by his hard-line approach to law and order.

What long term effect the decision will have on Mr Straw's standing will only become clear over the following months - and possibly years - as the extradition proceedings grind on.

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