Juan Garces has never met Augusto Pinochet, but he's come close a few times. In early September 1973, a few weeks after he was named head of the Chilean army, Gen. Pinochet called on Chile's president, Salvador Allende, for a briefing. Garces was Allende's personal political adviser, but missed the general's visit.

Two days later, on Sept. 11, Allende and Garces, who had worked into the early morning hours on a speech, were awakened at the presidential residence in Santiago by news of a naval mutiny in the coastal city of Valparaiso. They rushed to La Moneda, the presidential palace, where a coup, led by Pinochet, was already underway. Just after military planes bombed the building but before army infantry stormed up the steps, Allende ordered Garces, a Spanish citizen, to leave and seek shelter in his own nation's embassy. Once again, he missed the general's arrival.

And last week, when a British court convened to decide if Pinochet should be extradited to Spain to face trial on charges of crimes against humanity in Chile, Garces showed up. Pinochet, who has been under house arrest just outside London for the past year, did not.

It is the British court, due to rule on the extradition request this morning, that will decide if the two are ever likely to come face to face. Should Judge Ronald Bartle determine that the Spanish case has met British legal requirements, he will order Pinochet sent to Madrid for trial. Juan Garces, lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case--the families and friends of people tortured and killed during Pinochet's 17-year rule--expects to be at the prosecutors' table.

Garces insists that no matter what happens now, the case against the 83-year-old former dictator has succeeded. "The essential dimension of this case for the future is already a reality," he said in an interview here yesterday. Not only has it proved that up to 10 different countries can cooperate using both international and domestic law in providing evidence and witnesses, but "it has become a normal legal case. A normal extradition, used for the first time against a former head of state."

Although endless political arguments have surrounded the case--in the process exhuming the ghosts of Chile's upheaval in the 1970s and '80s, threatening the now-placid and profitable ties between Chile and Spain, sending both left and right to the barricades in Britain--those things are not at issue here, according to Garces. The only issue, he said, is the commission of crimes--torture, murder and disappearance--and the principle that no one is above indictment for them.

The principle may be a lofty one, but it is hard to believe that Garces would take no satisfaction from seeing Pinochet in the dock.

Baltazar Garzon, the crusading Spanish magistrate who officially indicted Pinochet, has gotten most of the international credit, and criticism, for pursuing the charges and the extradition. But it was Garces, a private lawyer, who spent the last three years studying applicable international and domestic law, interviewing witnesses and collecting documents--putting together the case that eventually ended up in Garzon's Madrid chambers and in London's Bow Street Magistrate's Court today.

Will he rise early this morning to hear the British court decision, due to be announced at 11 a.m. in London--6 in Washington? He smiles slightly and looks downward. "I'll get up at my usual time."

There is a sense this week of things having come full circle. Garces, 55, is in Washington to accept the 23rd annual human rights award presented last night by the Institute for Policy Studies in the name of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. Letelier, Chilean ambassador to Washington under Allende, and Moffitt, his associate, were living in Washington, working for IPS, when a car bomb killed them as they were driving through Sheridan Circle on a September morning in 1976, almost three years to the day after Pinochet's coup and Allende's death.

The three men--one American and two Cuban exiles--convicted and jailed for the assassinations agreed that the killings were at the behest of Chile's security apparatus--which answered directly to Pinochet. The Letelier and Moffitt families won a civil judgment against the government of Chile, and Pinochet's security chief and others in Chile eventually were jailed. But although the Justice Department insists the case is still open, charges against Pinochet himself have never been pursued here.

Garces' relationship with Chile began before the coup, even before Allende was elected in 1971. This is not a time that Garces wants to talk about--he would prefer to discuss the future of international law now that presidents no longer have absolute immunity abroad from crimes committed while in office.

"It's just for your information," he says of his time in Chile. "This is not interesting."

In the late 1960s, Garces was a doctoral candidate studying in Paris at the National Political Science Foundation, writing his thesis on political change during the 1960s in Colombia and Chile. On a research trip to the latter country he became friends with Allende, who was then president of the Chilean Senate. In 1971, Allende invited Garces back to work in his presidential campaign. "Well," he shrugs, "we were successful. He asked me to continue to work for him as personal adviser on political issues.

"My interest in Chile always was an intellectual interest in its political evolution," says Garces. The conservative media in Britain consistently describe him as "a Marxist," and accuse him of leading a left-wing conspiracy against the man former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has called Britain's best friend during the Falklands war against Argentina.

"When they tell me I am a Marxist, that means nothing to me. They use it as an insult," he says. "If you read my books, when I discuss political theories, I am most familiar with the America of the 1930s. From when I was a young student leader in university in Spain until now, my political sympathies are social democratic."

He left Chile after the coup aboard a airplane sent for him by the Spanish government. For the next two decades, he studied, wrote and practiced humanitarian and criminal law. But in 1996, an opportunity presented itself when one of two unions of Spanish prosecutors, the one with the word "progressive" in its name, determined that Spanish and international humanitarian law would allow prosecution in Spain of killings committed in Argentina during that country's infamous military rule. Clearly, the law also could apply to similar crimes by the military regime next door, in Chile, during the same period.

On July 4, 1996, the first case against Pinochet was filed by the sister of a Spanish priest killed in Chile--a friend of Garces in his native Valencia. Within days, and with Garces and his associates acting as their counsel, the Chilean Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared had filed similar cases on behalf of 1,198 people who disappeared and were presumed killed under the Pinochet regime. They were followed into court by the Group of Families of Executed Persons, the Chilean Medical Association, and dozens of individuals who had survived torture, or whose relatives had disappeared or were murdered.

The evidence Garces and his associates developed eventually implicated 35 Chilean former government officials and military officers. So far, only Pinochet has been indicted. Spanish law also permits counsel for the plaintiffs to act as prosecutor at trial.

"Here are the identified victims," Garces says, explaining the principles of chain-of-command responsibility established at the Nuremburg trials against Nazi war criminals. "Here is Pinochet. What is the link between these persons? That's what the investigation was about for three years." It was a connection, he says, that was not hard to establish in Chile's strict hierarchical military.

An international warrant was issued, and Pinochet was arrested while on a visit to London. Spain's conservative government has not supported the case, and the Chilean government, democratic since it took over from Pinochet in 1989, has protested at every turn that it, and no one else, should judge him.

But Garces says he is proud of the independence of the Spanish judiciary, and with the legal principles that have been established. "Every lawyer knows when a case begins, you don't know how and when it will end."

"They say it's a left-wing conspiracy because I worked for Allende," Garces says of the case he has devoted much of his life to for the past three years. "But we make no political discrimination," he says, pointing out that some of the original 3,000 victims on whose behalf the case was filed were military officers who fell out with Pinochet.

But Garces agrees his own motivation goes beyond the establishment of international legal precedents. "I was an involuntary witness to a crime," he says. "When la barbarie hecho poder"--when savagery created power. "That is an experience I don't wish on anyone. But when you have the opportunity to help bring justice, it is a moral obligation."

CAPTION: Juan Garces, lawyer for families of victims of Augusto Pinochet's regime, says politics are not the issue in the case.

CAPTION: Juan Garces: "I was an involuntary witness to a crime."