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Thursday, April 15, 1999 Published at 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK

UK Politics

Pinochet decision to set new precedent

Jack Straw: Walking towards his toughest judgement call

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Home Secretary Jack Straw's decision to allow extradition proceedings to continue against Augusto Pinochet was probably inevitable.

It was one of the most difficult decisions he was ever likely to face and, whatever the outcome, he was certain to come under attack from one of the competing camps.

The Lords' had kicked the ball back into his court by asking him to reconsider the whole case.

[ image: Anti-Pinochet campaigners celebrate]
Anti-Pinochet campaigners celebrate
But, by upholding the extradition demand, the home secretary has effectively put the onus back onto the courts.

Mr Straw has come under intense pressure from the rival camps and he had to ensure that his decision could not be portrayed as a political act.

The pro-Pinochet lobby - which includes former prime minister Margaret Thatcher - will undoubtedly claim that Mr Straw has been influenced by his own past.

He was a vocal supporter of the Allende-led government in Chile, which was ousted by the Pinochet regime.

But the protests will hold little sway. Mr Straw has clearly done his utmost to consider this case on purely legal grounds.

The result, however, is that the case will continue to grind through the courts for months, and possibly years, before a final ruling is made. And that ruling will have massive consequences.

If the extradition demand is upheld it will set an new international precedent and will make it possible for any country to haul other heads of state before the courts to answer for their "crimes" while in office.

And that is a can of worms that many governments would rather was never opened.

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