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An ailing Pinochet leaves Britain for Chile

Former dictator is ruled mentally unfit to stand trial

LONDON — Former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet left Britain on Thursday, hours after he was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial on charges of human rights abuses.

Pinochet's medically outfitted plane left an air base north of London after Britain's top law enforcement official dismissed the extradition requests of Spain and three other nations — Belgium, France and Switzerland — seeking to try him.

The 84-year-old former dictator, who had been detained in Britain for more than 16 months, was believed to be headed home to Chile.

"The nightmare is over," retired Gen. Luis Cortes, director of the Pinochet Foundation, said in Santiago, Chile, where Pinochet's arrest had divided the nation and soured relations with Britain. Cortes said the plane would land in Santiago on Friday morning, making one undisclosed stop along the way.

Pinochet's detention, and the subsequent legal fight, set a precedent in international law. For the first time, retired dictators were given a clear sign that they no longer can count on immunity from prosecution whether at home or abroad.

Home Secretary Jack Straw's decision to free Pinochet was based on an independent medical team's conclusions that his diminished mental capacity would make it impossible for him to participate in a trial. Pinochet suffered two small strokes last fall.

The ruling was open to appeal, but any such filings became moot once Pinochet left the country.

Pinochet's eldest son, Augusto Marco Antonio, said in Santiago that his father received Straw's ruling "very calmly, the way he usually is, without showing his feelings and emotions."

Pinochet's opponents also received the news calmly but held out hope the self-appointed senator for life might still stand trial at home.

"We should not be sad," said Viviana Diaz, president of a dissidents' group in Santiago. "He will return to Chile, but he will not be coming as a man declared innocent. He comes condemned by the world, thanks to the Spanish and British justice systems. We thank them."

The medical findings Straw used to make his decision had been criticized as insufficient by the four nations seeking Pinochet's extradition, but Straw dismissed their complaints.

Straw "is advised that most of the criticisms made of the report are irrelevant to its conclusions and certainly to the conclusions that are critical to Senator Pinochet's fitness for trial," the Home Office said in a statement.

"The principle that an accused person should be mentally capable of following the proceedings, instructing his lawyers and giving coherent evidence is fundamental to the idea of a fair trial," the statement said.

Britain's director of public prosecutions immediately decided not to launch a local prosecution, saying that no court in Britain would allow Pinochet to be tried, taking into account the medical findings.

An official Chilean report says 3,197 people died or disappeared during Pinochet's 17-year regime, which started when he ousted an elected Marxist president in 1973.

Straw's ruling essentially brings to an end a case that began Oct. 16, 1998, with Pinochet's arrest in a London hospital while recuperating from back surgery.

Pinochet suffers from diabetes and depression, and wears a pacemaker. He also has difficulty walking and suffered two mild strokes last fall, his doctors have said.

The general traveled to the airport from the rented mansion southwest of London, where has spent most of his detention under 24-hour police guard, aggressively fighting Spain's efforts to extradite him to face charges of the systematic torture of political opponents throughout his dictatorship.

"We are naturally disappointed with the ruling ... but we are not losing sight of our major achievements," said Paul May, a spokesman for the London-based Chile Committee for Justice. "He has been discredited in the eyes of the world."

Reed Brody of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch called Straw's decision "a terrible disappointment for Pinochet's thousands of victims."