The Observer (London)
Sunday January 7, 2001

Secret UK deal freed Pinochet

                                                                  A new book alleges the former
                                                                  dictator's release from Britain was
                                                                  brokered between Chile and Downing St.

                                                                  Hugh O'Shaughnessy

                                                                  Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean
                                                                  dictator, was allowed to escape
                                                                  extradition to Spain on 2 March last year
                                                                  because of plans worked out over many
                                                                  months by Tony Blair and Foreign
                                                                  Secretary Robin Cook in collaboration
                                                                  with Eduardo Frei, then President of Chile,
                                                                  according to leading Chilean sources.
                                                                  José María Aznar, the conservative Prime
                                                                  Minister of Spain and his Foreign Minister
                                                                  Abel Matutes, were involved in the

                                                                  'The freeing of Pinochet was a political
                                                                  decision taken by the British Government,'
                                                                  Hernán Montealegre, Chile's leading
                                                                  human rights lawyer, told The Observer
                                                                  yesterday. If the medical report which
                                                                  Home Secretary Jack Straw used to
                                                                  justify the former dictator's release had
                                                                  been tested in the courts, it would not
                                                                  have stood up, he claimed.

                                                                  Pinochet faces summary arrest today for
                                                                  contempt of court, having refused to
                                                                  submit to the medical examination
                                                                  ordered by Juan Guzmán, the examining
                                                                  judge dealing with the 1973 Caravan of
                                                                  Death case in which the former dictator is
                                                                  implicated. Pinochet faces an additional
                                                                  202 charges which relate to other crimes.

                                                                  The Blair-Frei plan was to prevent
                                                                  Pinochet's extradition while observing the
                                                                  law. Instead, the Prime Minister and
                                                                  Foreign Secretary relied on Britain's wide
                                                                  discretion on extradition matters.

                                                                  The plan was conceived in 1999 after it
                                                                  became clear that the Pinochet affair was
                                                                  dragging on far longer than governments
                                                                  expected and came to fruition when
                                                                  British doctors examined the General at
                                                                  Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, north
                                                                  London, on 5 January last year. Their
                                                                  report allowed Straw to exercise his
                                                                  discretion to release Pinochet on
                                                                  humanitarian grounds even though the
                                                                  former dictator had never said he was too
                                                                  ill to stand trial.

                                                                  The medical report was leaked in
                                                                  February after the High Court in London
                                                                  forced an unwilling Straw to disclose it to
                                                                  the Spanish and other governments. It
                                                                  was widely criticised as skimpy and
                                                                  unconvincing by experts in geriatrics in
                                                                  Britain and on the continent, particularly
                                                                  by the Belgian government which, with
                                                                  Switzerland and France, was also seeking
                                                                  Pinochet's extradition on grave charges.

                                                                  The plan evolved in discussions round the
                                                                  world - in London, Madrid, Santiago, Rio
                                                                  de Janeiro, at United Nations
                                                                  headquarters in New York and in
                                                                  Auckland, the capital of New Zealand.

                                                                  The Observer has reconstructed the
                                                                  moves which allowed a dictator notorious
                                                                  for murder and torture to escape trial in
                                                                  Spain last year.

                                                                  On 2 November 1998, shortly after
                                                                  Pinochet's arrest when it was expected
                                                                  that he would be speedily sent to Spain,
                                                                  Blair and Aznar met in Downing Street
                                                                  and it was announced that Spain would
                                                                  collaborate fully with the extradition
                                                                  proceedings. 'We will apply judicial
                                                                  decisions,' said Francisco Alvarez
                                                                  Cascos, Aznar's deputy. The legal
                                                                  wrangles continued into 1999.

                                                                  By mid-1999 a new stratagem emerged
                                                                  when Frei, had a long telephone
                                                                  conversation with Blair in which the
                                                                  Chilean sought help in getting Pinochet
                                                                  released back to Chile on humanitarian
                                                                  grounds. According to a book just
                                                                  published in Santiago, Augusto Pinochet:
                                                                  503 Dias Atrapado en Londres (Augusto
                                                                  Pinochet: 503 Days Trapped in London)
                                                                  by Monica Pérez, a leading Chilean TV
                                                                  journalist and Felipe Gertdtzen, the
                                                                  son-in-law of Frei, the Chilean President
                                                                  was keen to achieve Pinochet's return to
                                                                  Chile before his term ended in 2000.

                                                                  Frei argued to Blair that neither
                                                                  government would benefit if Pinochet were
                                                                  to die in England and that he could be
                                                                  tried in Chilean courts. According to the
                                                                  book, Blair emphasised to Frei that the
                                                                  case was before the courts and the
                                                                  Government could not interfere, adding
                                                                  that any British leader would court grave
                                                                  problems at home if he were seen to
                                                                  interfere with the course of justice. If there
                                                                  were any powers which Government could
                                                                  exercise they would be exercised by a
                                                                  Home Secretary not a Prime Minister, he
                                                                  said. Blair undertook to do what he could
                                                                  within the law provided the exchanges
                                                                  between the two leaders were kept secret.
                                                                  The authors claim that Blair suggested
                                                                  setting up a 'back channel', with two
                                                                  people appointed to liaise between the
                                                                  leaders' private offices.

                                                                  Frei's phone call followed a discussion on
                                                                  the Pinochet case in Rio at the
                                                                  Europe-Latin America summit between
                                                                  Chilean Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel
                                                                  Valdes and Cook. The two had got on

                                                                  Valdes and Cook continued their
                                                                  discussions at a meeting in September
                                                                  1999 in the New Zealand capital, the
                                                                  Foreign and Commonwealth Office
                                                                  confirmed yesterday. They met again later
                                                                  that month at the UN in New York.

                                                                  Valdes had also met Spanish Foreign
                                                                  Minister Matutes at the Rio summit,
                                                                  where the pair laid the foundations for the
                                                                  Spanish government's later sabotage of
                                                                  the efforts of Judge Baltasar Garzón to
                                                                  have Pinochet extradited to Spain.

                                                                  Aznar's government, worried about threats
                                                                  against Spanish investment in Chile,
                                                                  refused to transmit Garzón's instructions
                                                                  to the Crown Prosecution Service last
                                                                  January, an action for which Matutes was
                                                                  taken to court in Madrid in February last
                                                                  year. Aznar has a close relationship with
                                                                  Blair and the two men and their wives
                                                                  Cherie and Ana have twice been on
                                                                  holiday together in Spain since April 1998.

                                                                  The contact man between Frei and Blair
                                                                  was Cristian Tolosa, Frei's press chief,
                                                                  who made six visits to London in the
                                                                  second half of 1999, liaising with Blair's
                                                                  aide Jonathan Powell at Number 10.
                                                                  Yesterday, Downing Street said that it did
                                                                  not comment on contacts between

                                                                  Originally, Pinochet, proud of his physical
                                                                  fitness, refused to submit to the medical
                                                                  tests Frei wanted him to undergo. It took
                                                                  the dispatch of two Chilean generals, Juan
                                                                  Emilio Cheyre and Carlos Molina, to
                                                                  convince him to accept being medically
                                                                  examined, even by Chileans. The results
                                                                  of the Chilean examination were
                                                                  presented to the British, together with a
                                                                  memorandum on British extradition law
                                                                  prepared by the Chileans.

                                                                  Straw then went ahead with the second,
                                                                  much- criticised medical examination of
                                                                  Pinochet by British doctors which enabled
                                                                  the Home Secretary to refuse extradition
                                                                  on humanitarian grounds.

                                                                  Until Pinochet's departure from Britain, the
                                                                  Government rejected insistent calls from
                                                                  Amnesty International and others that it
                                                                  should itself charge Pinochet under the
                                                                  UN Convention against Torture - rather
                                                                  than merely respond to an initiative by a
                                                                  Spanish court.