Pinochet legal process could last years

 

The road to Gen Pinochet's possible extradition may be long, and the Chilean ex-dictator has a few means at his disposal to make it longer.

Gen Pinochet was arrested on Friday at a London clinic, where he was recovering from back surgery, on a Spanish warrant alleging genocide during his 17-year military rule in Chile.

The first step must be a request for extradition from Madrid, whose Interpol warrant led to Gen Pinochet's arrest. The Spanish judges have 40 days from that arrest to get such an application before the British Home Office.

It is likely that before drafting the application, the Spanish judges will first interview Gen Pinochet.

A Home Office spokesman said the 1989 law on extradition demands extremely specific grounds for a request to be considered.

The Spanish judges holds that Gen Pinochet faces genocide charges over the murder and disappearance of 3,000 people. Eighty of those who disappeared were Chileans of Spanish origin.

The Spanish government must approve the request. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mr Jose Maria Aznar, is aware that giving the green light could have consequences for Spain's ties with Chile, which has high levels of Spanish investment.

If the request is delivered, Britain's courts will have to scrutinise it. A police source said that could only be in "one or two weeks", after Gen Pinochet had sufficiently recovered.

From there, the file goes to the office of the Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, who will have the final word on whether to set Gen Pinochet's extradition in motion.

"He can take as long as he wishes," a Home Office spokesman said, adding that there was no legal time frame for Mr Straw's evaluation. It could take "over a month", he said.

Approval from Mr Straw would make extradition formal - but at that point Gen Pinochet has a couple of legal avenues to fight the move.

If he appeals, the matter would go to the High Court, where Gen Pinochet's lawyers could demand that the extradition be suspended or cancelled or that he be sent to another country.

That, too, could result in Britain's embarrassing guest continuing his stay. "Time needs to be allocated to lawyers to prepare," the Home Office spokesman explained.

Even if the High Court ruling goes against him, he has one more recourse: the House of Lords.

Recent cases have shown that the whole process could take years to be resolved. For example, a French-Algerian suspect in 1995 bomb attacks in Paris, Mr Mustapha Boutarfa, was extradited to France only in March after a two-year legal battle. A fellow suspect who was arrested three years ago, Mr Rachid Ramda, still has his appeal before the House of Lords.