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Wednesday, March 24, 1999 Published at 18:07 GMT


UK Politics

Straw's no-win decision

Jack Straw (second right) visited Chile in 1968

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

There is a bitter irony in the fact that Home Secretary Jack Straw's future has become linked with that of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The pinochet File
As a young student leader in Britain, Mr Straw was a vociferous supporter of the former Marxist leader of Chile, Salvador Allende.

He visited his hero in Santiago and was implacably opposed to the bloody, Pinochet-led coup which finally ousted Allende in 1973.

More than 25 years and a long political transformation later, Mr Straw will have to make the final judgement which will seal the fate of the man he once railed against.


[ image: General Pinochet: Cannot be extradited for tortures committed before 1988]
General Pinochet: Cannot be extradited for tortures committed before 1988
The Law Lords have done him no favours by handing down the most troublesome of all the possible options open to them - and landing the decision firmly back in his lap.

By ruling that the general cannot be extradited for tortures committed before 1988, they have dramatically reduced the charges facing the ex-dictator.

That muddied the water enough, but even worse for Mr Straw, the chairman of the panel considering the case, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, declared: "In view of the very substantial reduction in the number of extraditable charges, this matter will require to be reconsidered by the secretary of state."

Thatcher demands

That led to the instant demand from former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a staunch supporter of the general, that Mr Straw: "should bring to an end this damaging episode and allow Senator Pinochet to return to Chile."

Baroness Thatcher has been at the head of those claiming that General Pinochet saved British lives in the Falklands war by backing Britain.

The case will now get locked into a lengthy new legal procedure but, at the end of the day, it will still be up to Mr Straw to lay down the final ruling - and it will be the most difficult decision of his career.


[ image: Baroness Thatcher: Demanded that the general should return home]
Baroness Thatcher: Demanded that the general should return home
If he allows General Pinochet to be extradited he will face the wrath of the opposition, risk ruining UK relations with Chile and could even spark turmoil in General Pinochet's homeland, which is surviving on a fragile accommodation with its bloody past.

If he blocks extradition he will infuriate many Labour backbenchers, not only the hard-left, and risk relations with the Spanish government, which wants to bring General Pinochet to justice, and other EU states.

No one seriously believes Mr Straw will be influenced by his past beliefs.

His recent performance as home secretary has shown just how far he has put his radical past behind him.

Equally, no one challenges his insistence that he will base his decision on purely legal grounds.

Rising star

But that does not alter the fact that he will be judged politically on the way he handles the affair.

Only a year ago, the home secretary was widely seen as the brightest rising star in the Blair cabinet. He was even being touted as the next leader.

But a series of blunders and miscalculations have severely dented his image.

He was severely criticised for attempting, and failing, to ban newspapers from carrying leaked reports of the inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence affair.

He was then blasted for going on holiday to the south of France after it emerged that the names and addresses of key witnesses in the Lawrence inquiry had been published in the report - and the individuals concerned were living in fear of attack.

And, only earlier this week, he blundered over his attempt to block the early release of IRA prisoners - including the Brighton bomber.

His bid came the day before three terrorists were about to be freed and was seen by many in Belfast as a clumsy attempt to put pressure on the IRA over decommissioning. Suddenly, the rising star is starting to look accident prone.

The Pinochet judgement - hugely significant in its wider implications - may also prove make-or-break for Mr Straw.



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