London (CNSNews.com) - In the first sign that Britain may be considering Chile's request to repatriate General Augusto Pinochet for humanitarian reasons, the government has asked the frail former military ruler to undergo independent medical tests to ascertain whether he is too ill to stand trial for alleged human rights abuses.
Supporters hope Pinochet may be released and allowed to return home by Christmas, according to weekend reports.
His lawyer, Fernando Barros, said he was confident tests would show clearly that Pinochet was in no state to stand trial. He remains under house-arrest in Britain, pending the outcome of a Spanish extradition application.
Home Secretary Jack Straw is empowered to free Pinochet on health grounds once the legal process has been finalized. Pinochet's lawyers are currently appealing a British court ruling that he can be extradited to Spain to face torture and conspiracy to torture charges.
Following that ruling, the Chilean government made an official plea for his release.
The 83-year-old general has suffered two strokes. His doctors say they are treating him for 12 complaints, including diabetes and a heart condition.
Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1989 before standing down after losing a presidential election, was arrested in London in October 1998 while recovering from back surgery.
Human rights campaigners say more than 3,000 Chileans, many of them opponents of the military regime, died or "disappeared" during the Pinochet era.