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Declarations & Statements


The Independent, 1.2.00

Belgium starts new challenge to halt release of Pinochet. By Kim Sengupta

The Belgian government yesterday renewed a legal challenge in an effort to stop the release by Britain of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet, just hours after suffering a High Court defeat.

Mr Justice Maurice Kay refused an application from Belgium and human rights groups for a judicial review of the Home Secretary's decision to keep the former dictator's medical report secret.

But lawyers for the Belgian government lodged papers for a fresh hearing which is expected to be heard next week. They will also seek an emergency injunction to prevent Jack Straw returning the former dictator to Chile before the process is completed. The general is unlikely to leave Britain until the middle of next week.

Mr Straw will also face questioning over his conduct and that of his civil servants over the confidentiality of General Pinochet's medical report, which has become the centre of an international row.

The Belgian authorities wrote a letter of protest, which was described in court as a " diatribe against the Home Secretary", over his indication that he would free General Pinochet on the basis of medical conclusions which he had refused to pass on to countries seeking to extradite him.

Mr Straw has given the impression that the report was being kept confidential at Pinochet's insistence. But The Independent has seen correspondence which clearly shows that it was the Home Office which had voluntarily offered to keep General Pinochet's medical report confidential when asking for the former dictator to undergo the tests.

The Home Office's request for the medical tests was sent to General Pinochet's solicitor, Michael Caplan, of the firm Kingsley Napley, in a letter from Fenella Tayler of the Home Office's Judicial Co-operation unit dated 5 November 1999. It states unequivocally "...It should go without saying that every effort would be made by the doctors and their team, and the Home Office, to keep the report's contents entirely confidential."

The General's lawyers had not asked for the tests to be carried out or for confidentiality.

After receiving the Home Office letter Mr Caplan responded on 11 November "I am grateful for your indication that the Home Office will make every effort to keep the contents of any report confidential.

"Senator Pinochet is prepared to undergo the examination on the understanding that none of the contents are disclosed to anybody other than the Home Office and ourselves."

Following further talks it was agreed that the report would also be seen by the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Solicitor General, in case of the prospect of prosecution under British laws.

However, Mr Straw refused to allow the Crown Prosecution Service, representing the Spanish government which wants to try General Pinochet on charges of human rights abuse, as well as Belgium, France and Switzerland, also seeking to extradite him, sight of the report. A leading Pinochet supporter said yesterday: "Jack Straw has been trying to blame Senator Pinochet over not making the report public, when it was his people who made the offer.

"This is a sleight of hands from Mr Straw which is typical of his performance on this case. It is ironic this time it is the other side, the general's enemies, who are suffering because of Straw's slipperiness."

Earlier, in the High Court, Mr Justice Kay said the Home Secretary had acted "lawfully, fairly and rationally" in announcing he was "minded" to release General Pinochet.

In his 37-page ruling, Mr Justice Kay said he was "completely against" the arguments put forward by the human rights groups that they should be given access to the medical report or be allowed to conduct another examination of the general.

Mr Straw had already obtained an "impartial" medical assessment of General Pinochet by an internationally distinguished team of clinicians as required for him to carry out his public duties.

Mr Straw had said that he was likely to give his decision on the fate of General Pinochet tomorrow. But he may now decide to wait until the next week's hearing, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, is finished.

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