LONDON — Former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, in British custody for the last 15 months, is too ill to be tried on human rights charges and may be released next week, the government announced late Tuesday.
Home Secretary Jack Straw said that an independent team of four doctors who examined the 84-year-old Pinochet last week had concluded that he is "unfit to stand trial" and that his condition is unlikely to improve.
Pinochet underwent seven hours of medical tests after his own doctors and medical team asserted that he was suffering the effects of a series of small strokes and Chile asked that he be sent home on humanitarian grounds.
Spain has been seeking Pinochet's extradition from Britain on charges of torture and conspiracy to commit torture stemming from the retired general's brutal 1973-90 rule in Chile, during which more than 3,000 people died or disappeared.
Pinochet has been fighting the extradition with all his legal might in a case that has twice gone to Britain's highest court and has set precedents in international human rights law.
Straw indicated that this was the end of the line. He advised attorneys for Spain and the governments of France, Belgium and Switzerland, which have outstanding requests for Pinochet's extradition, that they have seven days to submit any further petitions. Late Tuesday, the Spanish government said it will respect any decision by the British government on its extradition request.
"Subject to any representations he may receive in the next seven days, the home secretary takes the view that no purpose would be served by continuing the present extradition proceedings," a Home Office spokeswoman said.
The news was not entirely unexpected: Britain had seemed to be looking for a diplomatic solution to a case that had battered relations with both Chile and Spain. A medical determination of this sort allows Straw to send Pinochet home on humanitarian grounds without taking sides in the politically charged legal case.
But the timing of the announcement was a surprise. It comes just five days before Chile's presidential election, in which the political left and right are battling for every vote.
After a close-fought campaign in which Pinochet had been largely absent from the debate, his likely return to Chile puts the ex-dictator back on the political stage. The impact on the election is unclear, but Straw's ruling presents a clear-cut victory to Chile's center-left government at a time when Socialist candidate Ricardo Lagos faces a strong challenge from rightist candidate Joaquin Lavin.
On Tuesday night, the Chilean government issued a statement through Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes, who praised the British government for the "seriousness" with which it has handled a "delicate issue."
Meanwhile, Lagos reminded journalists that he led the fight to oust Pinochet from power. Although Lagos sounded a compassionate note Tuesday night, he also pointed out that Pinochet still faces a 53-count criminal investigation in Chile for crimes allegedly committed during his regime.
"All of us who have humanitarian values should have compassion," Lagos said. "[But] a trial in Chile is another matter. I reiterate that this was not a political problem but a judicial matter that evolved into a human problem. Let's let justice run its course in Chile."
Lavin declined requests to comment on the decision.
Pinochet's daughter, Jacqueline Pinochet, told Chilean journalists that she called London as soon as she heard the news. But she said Pinochet's aides declined to wake the general or his wife, Lucia, because of his fragile health.
"I give thanks to God; this was the correct decision, I hope that now things will be different," Jacqueline Pinochet said. "I am very excited."
Viviana Diaz, a leader of a group representing Chilean victims of the military regime, expressed disappointment at the news.
"We are very concerned," Diaz said. "This is news that we did not expect. It cannot be that Augusto Pinochet will be sent home to Chile because of humanitarian reasons."
Jeremy Corbyn, a Labor member of Britain's Parliament and a critic of Pinochet, criticized Straw for considering ill health as grounds for the general's release.
"It is my understanding that Pinochet is fit to stand trial if he is fit to understand the charges made," Corbyn said on BBC radio. "He has been giving interviews organizing his defense."
He said that Pinochet should be put on trial "just like the Nazi war criminals."
Pinochet was arrested at the request of Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon on Oct. 16, 1998, at a private London hospital where he was recovering from back surgery. He has lived under 24-hour police guard at a rented mansion west of London while his lawyers fought his extradition.
Garzon did not issue a statement Tuesday night.