Pinochet: To Free or Not to Free?

Britain's highest court began hearing an appeal yesterday against a ruling that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet cannot be extradited to Spain to face charges of torture and genocide.

About 300 people, many of them Chilean exiles and relatives of those who "disappeared" under Pinochet's 17-year rule, crowded into a room in the House of Lords - Britain's upper chamber of Parliament - as a panel of five law lords considered the fate of the former general.

The victims are not allowed to present evidence themselves in the two-day hearing. But in an unprecedented move, human rights group Amnesty International has been given permission to have a lawyer speak on their behalf.

Amnesty's lawyer is arguing that human rights violations in Pinochet's Chile amounted to crimes against humanity and as such are subject to universal jurisdiction dating back to the time of the Nuremberg tribunal, which was set up after World War II.

Pinochet's lawyers are repeating the arguments accepted by Britain's High Court last week that the former dictator cannot be prosecuted because he enjoys immunity as a head of state.

Legal experts say the arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge will become irrelevant if the British panel rules in Pinochet's favor in a decision expected later this week.

France and Switzerland also want to extradite Pinochet, and Chilean exiles in Sweden, Belgium, Norway, and Germany have filed criminal complaints they hope will lead to his extradition.

If freed, however, Pinochet could fly home to more trouble.

In Chile Tuesday a coalition of center-left parties that support President Eduardo Frei appointed a legal panel to examine the possibility of Pinochet standing trial in his native land.

As a senator-for-life and under laws he initiated, Pinochet has so far had immunity from prosecution in Chile.

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