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The Independent, 13.2.00

New Chilean law could let Pinochet off. By Hugh O'Shaughnessy

As a dispute broke out yesterday about the health of the former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, it emerged that the government of Chile is pushing through a constitutional amendment which will effectively prevent him ever having to face trial at home.

Members of Gen Pinochet's family said yesterday they were rushing to Britain, where he has been fighting extradition to Spain on charges of crimes against humanity since October 1998, following a "serious deterioration" in his health. "He does not get out of bed, he hardly talks with anyone and it has left his entire family worried," said Luis Cortes Villa, head of the Pinochet Foundation in Chile.

Gen Pinochet, 84, suffers from diabetes and has a heart pacemaker. His doctors say he has had at least two strokes since being detained in Britain. In London, however, a Pinochet aide said there had been no change in his health. The Home Office also said it had not been informed of any change.

The question of Gen Pinochet's health is at the centre of the latest court battle over him in Britain. The Belgian government and several human rights groups are seeking to make the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, reveal the medical advice on which he is proposing to send the general home. Lawyers seeking his extradition point out that, in his plea for Habeas Corpus, due to be heard on 20 March, the former dictator has not given his failing health as a reason for release. In the High Court on 3 December it was made clear that he would not argue health grounds.

Hints from Chile that the ex-dictator might be put on trial there have played a part in the international struggle over him, but the government in Santiago is days away from passing a law which would give him lifelong immunity. The measure, which has all-party support, changes Article 30 of the constitution, itself a product of the Pinochet dictatorship, to provide the possibility that Senators for Life, a post that Gen Pinochet gave himself before he left the presidency in 1990, may resign.

Although it can in theory be lifted, parliamentary immunity protects the general while he remains a life senator. Both opponents and allies of Gen Pinochet have been calling for him to give up the position, the former because they want to punish him, the latter because they fear his continued presence on the political scene will be bad for Chile's international image and for Chilean business.

The amendment establishes a new legal status, that of "The Official Dignity of ex-President of the Republic", and the right to a pension of some £2,500 a month. It also allows an "ex-President of the Republic" freedom from any action in the courts. If Gen Pinochet had resigned or been removed from the Senate he would have been in increased danger of prosecution - though he could have sought to be tried in a military court. His former military colleagues have sworn that he will never face justice.

Even that distant prospect of his being brought to justice will shortly disappear. Though the constitution, as drafted at present, allows for the parliamentary immunity of members of Congress to be lifted, there will be no machinery for such action to be taken against "ex-Presidents of the Republic".

President Eduardo Frei, who leaves office next month, is anxious to keep his promise that the former dictator will be home during his presidency. President-elect Ricardo Lagos is equally keen that the Pinochet affair is put to bed before he becomes head of state.

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