Spanish cabinet relieved as prospect of trial recedes

 

The news that Gen Augusto Pinochet is now unlikely to be extradited to Spain was greeted with an almost audible sigh of relief in Spanish government circles.

Although the Prime Minister, Mr Jose Maria Aznar, and his cabinet have pointedly tried to keep their distance from the case, it is an open secret that none of them wanted to see the ailing former dictator facing trial in a Spanish court.

"The Spanish government has, from the first moment, maintained its attitude of total and scrupulous respect for the judicial decisions, both British and Spanish," said the Spanish Foreign Minister, Mr Abel Matutes, yesterday.

He reiterated comments made some months ago when he said that Spain would accept any decision of British justice or the British government if they found health or humanitarian grounds to prevent Gen Pinochet being extradited to Spain to face trial. "Our opinions have not changed. They remain clear and coherent."

Anti-Pinochet protesters gathered yesterday in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol, as they have many times over the last 15 months. Mr Jack Straw's statement had turned their usually positive mood to frustration, anger and disappointment. "This is a blow for our fight to bring the murderer to justice," said Ms Marcella Pradenas, a victim of the Chilean repression.

The Socialist Party leader, Mr Joaquin Almunia, described the decision as a sad one and a bad decision for justice. "It is a sad day when a dictator can commit crimes with impunity," he said. This view contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor, Mr Felipe Gonzalez, who regarded the extradition demand as an interference with Chilean sovereignty.

Judge Baltasar Garzon, who has tenaciously pursued the extradition request since October 1998, has given all parties in the case 24 hours to hand him their responses, which must be passed on to the British Home Secretary within one week.

The judge's office confirmed that he was satisfied with the way the case has been handled and that Spanish justice had done all it could. But it has become clear that the case is no longer a matter for the judiciary and is now a political and diplomatic process.

Mr Joan Garces, a Chilean lawyer who has worked alongside Judge Garzon throughout the proceedings, refused to admit defeat.

"The door remains open and we have not heard the last word," he said yesterday. "When Gen Pinochet next appears in Chile reviewing the troops without a walking stick, then Jack Straw will realise he has made the wrong decision."

AFP adds: Other EU countries with extradition warrants against Gen Pinochet yesterday accepted that if Britain did not extradite him to Spain, their cases would probably also fall, though some will still persevere.

A French judge asked the government to take urgent steps to ensure that Gen Pinochet could be questioned in France. An extradition request for Gen Pinochet to stand trial in Switzerland still stands. Belgium asked Mr Straw for more information on Gen Pinochet's medical condition.