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Pinochet Undergoes Medical Check

January 5, 2000

LONDON (AP) _ Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet underwent an independent medical examination today to determine his fitness to stand trial in Spain on charges of human rights abuses.

The 84-year-old general arrived at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, north of London, shortly before 9 a.m. with a large entourage from the Chilean Embassy, said hospital spokesman Brian Goodinson.

The tests, ordered by the Home Office, were expected to take most of the day.

Pinochet’s supporters have long said his health is too poor to withstand the rigors of a trial.

The medical exam was requested by the Chilean government and accepted by British Home Secretary Jack Straw, who ultimately must decide whether to extradite Pinochet to Spain or allow him to return home.

The organization Human Rights Watch said today that determining the state of Pinochet’s health was very important because ``all criminal defendants must be able to participate in their own defense.″

``The mere fact, however, that a person is old or is ill does not place him above enforcement of the law,″ said organization spokesman Reed Brody in New York.

Pinochet should only be released if he isn’t fit enough to stand trial or to survive the legal process because ``a trial can be tremendously valuable in establishing the truth about his crimes and giving his victims their day in court,″ regardless of whether he serves a sentence, Brody said.

Pinochet has been under detention in Britain since his arrest in a London hospital nearly 15 months ago on a Spanish warrant. He is being sought to face trial for alleged human rights abuses committed during his 17-year rule.

According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet, 3,197 people were killed or disappeared during his 1973-90 dictatorship.

Since his arrest, Pinochet has waged an aggressive court battle to block his extradition. In the latest move, his lawyers have appealed an Oct. 8 ruling by a London magistrate that he can be extradited to Spain. A hearing is scheduled to begin on March 20.

But the medical tests _ which could lead to a release on humanitarian grounds _ may represent Pinochet’s best chance of putting an end to his detention.

While Straw’s office has said the home secretary will not intervene until the legal fight runs it course, Pinochet’s lawyers may choose to drop their appeal if the doctor’s examination appears to go their way.

That would send the case straight to Straw, who can consider Pinochet’s health in making a final ruling. However, in an earlier decision, Straw ruled that Pinochet was fit enough for the extradition case to proceed.

Pinochet’s supporters and the Chilean government argue that the former dictator’s health has significantly deteriorated in recent months. Pinochet, whose is in police custody in a rented mansion outside of London, has diabetes, uses a pacemaker and suffers from arthritis. His doctors say he suffered two mild strokes in September.

However, even if Straw were to agree to release Pinochet due to health concerns, the Spanish prosecutor could appeal that ruling, further prolonging the general’s enforced stay in England.