LONDON — Britain's order that Gen. Augusto Pinochet must face extradition proceedings is being hailed by human rights groups as a major victory for their cause.
But as the former Chilean dictator prepared to appear before London magistrates today, it was clear that, by deciding to let the extradition process continue, Home Secretary Jack Straw had triggered what promises to be a long and fierce judicial battle.
There are clear signs also that, as well as being a matter for legal dispute, General Pinochet's future has become the focus of political acrimony between the Blair government and the Conservative opposition.
Margaret Thatcher, the former Conservative prime minister and a close friend of Pinochet, has called Mr. Straw's ruling "a grave mistake." Opposition leader William Hague attacked it as "cowardly."
Blair government supporters greeted the ruling with delight. Labour Party chairman Clive Soley said: "The message is clear to all dictators and potential dictators that you can assume the rule of law will now be applied."
Within minutes of Straw's announcement, Pinochet's London defense team came out fighting. A team spokesman said Thursday that they intended to battle his extradition to Spain "all the way, with all legal means at our disposal."
They will do so with the backing of the Chilean government, which on Wednesday recalled its London ambassador in protest against Straw's decision. There were reports in London and Santiago Thursday that the Chilean government was preparing a full legal challenge in the British courts.
But Richard Bunting, spokesman in Britain of the human rights organization Amnesty International, announced that his organization, with backing from the families of Chile's "disappeared," intended to ensure that Pinochet would be tried in Spain for alleged crimes of murder and torture.
"This decision signals the birth of a new era of human rights," Bunting said.
French Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou said Thursday that Britain's decision opened the possibility that Pinochet could be tried in France which, after Spain and Switzerland, has also requested his extradition.
If magistrates in London support Straw's decision, months of legal wrangling are likely to follow. The ex-dictator could appeal against extradition all the way back to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court, which on Nov. 25 ruled he had a case to answer.
Whatever the outcome, Straw would have the final decision about the general's future.
Geoffrey Bindman, a lawyer for Amnesty International, says he was confident Pinochet would be extradited to Spain.
"I would not anticipate it would take more than a few months. It will undoubtedly be expedited," he says.