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(London) - Human Rights Watch has joined with five allied organizations to seek a judicial order preventing the British Home Secretary from releasing Augusto Pinochet without certain basic steps of procedural fairness.

The application seeks an independent examination of the medical basis for any decision regarding the former Chilean dictator's fitness to stand trial. Home Secretary Jack Straw had been expected to announce his decision in the next few days.

"A matter of such tremendous importance deserves more than just a rushed, closed-door decision," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "If Secretary Straw does not permit public, adversarial proceedings, we hope the courts will order such a hearing."

Human Rights Watch objects on three main grounds to the procedure used so far to assess Pinochet's fitness to stand trial:

§ First, the medical examination was cursory and performed by non-specialists. There was no old-age psychiatrist among the doctors examining Pinochet. The examination consisted of a one-shot evaluation in hospital conditions rather than an assessment over time in Pinochet's temporary home. Two of the four doctors did not even speak Spanish. Under these conditions, the examining doctors could easily have misread temporary medical conditions, such as depression or medication-induced effects, as permanent.

§ Second, the results of the medical examination have not been shared with interested parties, including the four governments who have sought Pinochet's extradition - Spain, Belgium, France and Switzerland. This secrecy has precluded those who represent the interests of Pinochet's victims from challenging the sufficiency of the evidence for concluding that Pinochet is unfit to stand trial. In British criminal prosecutions, a determination of fitness to stand trial is ordinarily made after an adversarial proceeding in which interested parties are given access to the relevant evidence and an opportunity to challenge it.

§ Third, there has been no public hearing on this matter of vital public interest. Of particular concern is whether the evidence shows not merely that Pinochet is a sick, old man - a fate to which many of Pinochet's victims would have gladly aspired - but, as British law requires, that he is incapable of understanding the proceedings against him and of assisting in his own defense.

These concerns are described in the "application for permission to apply for judicial review," which will be filed today or tomorrow in the British High Court of Justice. The five allied organizations joining Human Rights Watch in filing this application are Amnesty International, The Redress Trust, The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, The Association of the Relatives of Disappeared Persons, and Justicia.

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