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Senator Pinochet

3.31 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the circumstances of his decisions in respect of General Pinochet.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): The current position is as follows: Senator Pinochet was arrested in London on 16 October 1998, pursuant to a warrant issued by the fifth central magistrates court in Madrid, and he has been held since that date on bail.

On 14 April 1999, following the second judgment of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords the previous month, I issued a second authority to proceed in respect of offences of torture and conspiracy to torture alleged to have been committed by Senator Pinochet after December 1988. On 16 May last year, Senator Pinochet's solicitors applied for permission for a judicial review of my decision. The state of Senator Pinochet's health was not among the grounds advanced by his legal representatives.

At the hearing on 27 May 1999, the application for permission for judicial review against me was dismissed. The extradition hearing took place between 27 and 30 September at the Bow Street magistrates court. On 8 October, the Bow Street magistrates committed Senator Pinochet on all charges to await my decision on surrender.

Reports about Senator Pinochet's medical condition were taken into account by me in taking both decisions on the authorities to proceed, but at those stages I had no reason to doubt his fitness to stand trial. Since the authority-to-proceed stages, Senator Pinochet has not made direct representations to me about his medical condition. However, on 14 October last year, representations were submitted by the Chilean embassy, attaching recent medical reports on Senator Pinochet. They suggested that there had been a recent and significant deterioration in his medical condition.

I have a clear legal duty to operate the Extradition Act 1989 in full. In the light of the information from the Chilean embassy, that duty included involving myself in and informing myself fully of the true facts about Senator Pinochet's health. I therefore asked him to undergo a thorough and extensive medical examination, to be undertaken by an independent team of clinicians. Senator Pinochet gave his consent. He was entitled to the usual patient confidentiality, and he has chosen to exercise that right. He did however agree to the disclosure of the report to me and to the United Kingdom prosecuting authorities.

On the advice of the Government's chief medical officer, I appointed a team of clinicians of outstanding national and international reputation. Its members were Sir John Grimley Evans, professor of clinical geratology of the university of Oxford; Dr. Michael Denham, consultant physician in geriatric medicine at Northwick Park hospital; Andrew Lees, professor of neurology at the national hospital for neurology and neurosurgery in London; and Maria Wyke, a consultant neuropsychologist. It was established that none of them had any inappropriate personal interest in the case. Their medical examination of the senator took place on

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5 January this year. My officials received the team's report late on 6 January. I considered it with advice over last weekend.

The unequivocal and unanimous conclusion of the three medical practitioners and the consultant neuropsychologist was that, following a recent deterioration in the state of Senator Pinochet's health, which seems to have occurred principally during September and October 1999, he is at present unfit to stand trial, and that no change to that position can be expected. I have therefore told Senator Pinochet's legal representatives that, subject to any representations that I may receive, I am minded to take the view that no purpose would be served by continuing the present extradition proceedings.

I have written formally to the Crown Prosecution Service as representative of the kingdom of Spain, to the Government of Chile, as well as to France, Belgium and Switzerland, each of these three countries having outstanding extradition requests before us. Letters have also gone to a number of human rights organisations, inviting them to submit any further representations that they consider that I should take into account, and to do so within the next seven days.

Throughout these proceedings, I have not been able to make any oral statement to the House because of my quasi-judicial role in respect of extradition matters and because of the sub judice rules of the House. I have always made it clear that I would make a full oral statement when the matter has finally been resolved, which of course I shall do. Meanwhile, I must maintain an open mind on this matter, including the representations that I may receive. I hope that the House will understand that until the matter is finally concluded, what I can say is bound heavily to be circumscribed.

Miss Widdecombe: Although I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, may I draw his attention to the widespread concern, which is shared on both sides of the House, that we had to learn of this important decision from the press late last night, and not from a statement from himself to the House? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why it was necessary for us to learn of these matters from the press, bearing in mind that it was not through any leak but rather through a formal Home Office statement, which could surely have been made by a Minister to the House?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that at all stages throughout these proceedings he has had the discretion to take the medical condition of Senator Pinochet into account? Will he tell us when a magistrate first commented that Senator Pinochet was unable to attend court? Will he explain why, at that stage, he did not commission the sort of report which he has now, at the final stages, commissioned?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what the cost of this entire business has been? He must realise that there has been an immense expenditure of public money, of time and of effort--there has been anxiety on all sides of the argument--in a situation that will result in the end in the senator probably being returned to Chile, which could have happened at a much earlier stage had the right hon. Gentleman had the decisiveness to approach the issue properly? Will he accept that from the start this matter has been handled in a bungling and incompetent way, and

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that at the end of it no one is satisfied? Spain is not satisfied, Chile is not satisfied, and the British people have been put through an awful lot of expense for no result whatsoever.

I shall be interested to hear from the Secretary of State exactly what this seven days means. [Hon. Members: "A week."] It probably does not mean a week. Will he confirm that, if a legal challenge is mounted in the next seven days, the proceedings could go on well beyond the week in question, and that Senator Pinochet could continue to be held in this country for some time to come? When the Home Secretary talks about seven days, he is not giving the real position.

Will the Secretary of State tell us how on earth he has managed to come to a series of such conflicting decisions in so many cases recently? He arrested Senator Pinochet when the senator was in bed recovering from an operation; by contrast, he let a suspected Nazi war criminal walk out of this country even before the police investigation had been completed. Furthermore, even when he had the clearest possible admissions, he took no action in respect of cold war spies. Does he have any grip on his Department? Does he have any consistency? Does he have any logic? Is not he dealing with this matter in the most shameful way for a man of his high office?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady asked me a series of questions, and, subject to what I said in my statement, I shall do my best to respond to each of them. On the issue of the statement last night, as I have already explained, because these matters are still under consideration by me in my quasi-judicial role and because of the sub judice rules of the House, it has not been the practice--nor, I suggest, could it have been--in these extradition proceedings or in any other for there to be a sequence of oral statements to the House about the decisions that have been made. That has been accepted by the House and has been the practice of previous Home Secretaries and Home Office Ministers for very good and understandable reasons.

From a personal point of view, that has been frustrating, because I have always been ready to come to the House to make oral statements whenever the need has arisen. I would have preferred to do so in this case.

A major distinction should be drawn between the decisions for which a Home Secretary is responsible in other areas and those for which he is responsible in a quasi-judicial capacity. It is inevitable in this process that the parties to extradition proceedings must be informed of decisions before Parliament, and therefore the public, can be informed. We had to inform the parties last night. It was my hope and intention that a proper written statement, which would also have been reported to the House as a written statement, could have been made this morning. Not because of any direct action by the Home Office, but because it emerged late last night that the news of my decision in this case--that I was minded to complete these extradition proceedings--was about to be made public, I deemed it appropriate to issue the statement last night. Otherwise, there would have been considerable confusion about the matter.

The right hon. Lady asked whether, at all stages, I had a discretion to take the senator's medical condition into account. At all stages I have been under a duty to take all circumstances into account in respect of the senator, including his medical condition and any representations that have been made to me about it.

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A full estimate of the cost of the extradition proceedings cannot be made until the matter is finally at an end. There are currently legal proceedings still before the High Court.

I am surprised that the right hon. Lady did not properly appreciate the fact that we are signatories to a number of conventions on extradition, including the European convention on extradition. It was her Government who passed the Extradition Act 1989, which imposes the clearest possible duties on any Secretary of State, on the Government and on other law enforcement authorities in respect of extradition requests from states. It is to her great discredit that she suggested that it was I who ordered Senator Pinochet's arrest; that is not the case.

Finally, the right hon. Lady asked what "seven days" meant. "Seven days" means seven days during which I am able to consider representations. The outcome remains to be seen, because although initial and final decisions about authority to proceed are made by the Secretary of State, the extradition process is also subject to legal proceedings. That is the nature of the process in this country, and it cannot be changed in respect of any individual application.

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