(London) - Human Rights Watch hailed the decision of a British magistrate to commit Gen. Augusto Pinochet for extradition. The group specifically pointed to the judge's broad rulings on the conspiracy charge and Pinochet's use of "disappearances."

"This historic decision brings us one step closer to the day when Pinochet will have to answer in a court of law for his terrible crimes," said Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, which took part in the Pinochet hearings before the House of Lords. "Pinochet's wall of impunity has crumbled. The thousands of people who were killed, brutalized and 'disappeared' by his regime, and their families, are finally finding justice."

Human Rights Watch expressed confidence that Magistrate Ronald Bartle's decision would be upheld by higher courts. "Pinochet can drag this out with appeals, but he cannot hope to overturn this sound legal decision," said Brody. "Unless politics intervenes, Pinochet will be going to Spain."

Although the charges have been restricted to crimes committed by Pinochet after December 1988, when the United Nations torture convention took effect in Chile and Britain, Human Rights Watch stressed that the key conspiracy charges have been strengthened by today's decision. Magistrate Bartle specifically ruled that Pinochet's conduct before 1988 -- which would include the creation of the secret police and the establishment of Operation Condor targeting Pinochet's opponents abroad -- could be examined in proving the conspiracy.

"The conspiracy charge goes to the heart of the case because it alleges that Pinochet used torture as a weapon of intimidation and political persecution," said Brody. "The charge will allow the Spanish prosecutors to show that Pinochet created a repressive state apparatus that relied on torture, that he was fully aware that torture was being practiced systematically and that he never once punished anyone who had committed torture."

Human Rights Watch also underlined Bartle's ruling that "the effect on the families of those who disappeared can amount to mental torture," and that Spanish prosecutors could seek to prove that this was Pinochet's intention. The Spanish extradition request details the cases of 1,198 "disappearances."

"The practice of 'disappearance' inflicts untold pain and suffering on the loved ones of the 'disappeared' person, " said Brody. "For the Magistrate to uphold these allegations is a historic acknowledgement of the families' continuing anguish and an invitation to Spain to show that Pinochet used this cruel practice as a form of terror."

The group noted that the Pinochet's prosecution has awakened the hopes of victims groups around the world, many of whom are now exploring how to use foreign courts to bring their tormentors to justice.

"Augusto Pinochet is the first ruler to face extradition for human rights crimes, but he will not be the last," said Brody. "This decision confirms that the world is becoming a smaller place for people who commit atrocities."