Augusto Pinochet is too sick to stand trial on the human rights charges against him, the British government announced tonight, a conclusion that means the former Chilean president could go home in a matter of weeks.

Four physicians who examined the 84-year-old general here last week concluded that his health is too frail to withstand the rigors of a criminal trial in Spain. A Spanish magistrate has indicted Pinochet on charges of torture and conspiracy during the 17 years he ruled Chile as the head of a military junta.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw said that because of the medical judgment, he is "minded . . . to take the view that no purpose would be served by continuing the present extradition proceedings and that he should therefore decide not to extradite Senator Pinochet." Straw did not mention the medical problems, but Pinochet's personal doctor says he has had heart ailments and several minor strokes.

The Chilean government, which has pressed for Pinochet's release, issued a cautious statement, saying it awaits "a final decision." In Madrid, the Spanish government said it would respect the British government's judgment in the case.

Pinochet has been held under house arrest in Britain for 15 months, pending extradition to Spain on the torture charges. If Straw determines that he cannot extradite him, there would no longer be a legal ground for holding him in Britain. Pinochet has said all along that he wants to go home as quickly as possible.

Straw said he will wait seven days for "representations" from the governments of Spain, Chile and other interested parties before issuing a final determination. These presumably would include human rights groups and other European governments that have issued indictments against Pinochet.

But in the face of a unanimous conclusion by medical experts, it seems unlikely that any new argument would revive the criminal case. Under British extradition law, the home secretary--whose powers are akin to those of the U.S. attorney general--has broad discretion to release an accused criminal at any point. Straw has now telegraphed clearly that he is ready to exercise his discretion in the Pinochet case.

Even the human rights community has signaled that it would not protest too severely if Pinochet, who reportedly uses a wheelchair most of the time, were sent home without standing trial.

The Pinochet case has already created a historic precedent--the rule of "universal jurisdiction" for human rights abusers. Last March, Britain's highest court ruled that a former head of state accused of violating international human rights treaties can be brought to trial in virtually any country.

"We feel Pinochet should face justice for his crimes," said Reed Brody of the New York-based Human Rights Watch in a recent interview. "But the case has already established a fundamentally important legal principle. At this point, it might be counterproductive if Pinochet were to be seen as a sick, elderly man who is being hounded beyond reason."

Diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic would probably breathe a large sigh of relief if the Pinochet case were to end. The Chilean government has repeatedly called for Pinochet to be sent home, and the long legal struggle has had a negative impact on relations among Chile, Spain and Britain.

The charges were brought by an investigating magistrate in Spain, Baltasar Garzon. Garzon, a Socialist, is out of favor with Spain's centrist government, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has indicated that Spain would have no complaint if the British were to terminate the case on health grounds. Garzon also has made it known that he would not raise any legal objections if the British government were to let Pinochet go home for medical reasons.

Pinochet defines himself as "a warrior," and it is possible he would have more battles to fight if he did return home soon. Since he was arrested here on the Spanish extradition warrant in October 1998, Chile has begun a forceful campaign to indict and try former officials of the Pinochet junta on charges of kidnapping, murder and torture. Although Pinochet provided himself with immunity in a constitution he wrote in the 1980s, it is not clear that Chile is still willing to honor that grant.

After seizing power from an elected president in 1973, Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron hand for 17 years. When he finally allowed an election, he was voted out of office but was made a senator for life and continued to enjoy considerable political power.

But his world turned upside down in the fall of 1998 while he was in a London hospital for back surgery. At 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 24, there was a knock on the door of his room. Police, acting on an extradition request from Spain, entered and placed him under arrest.

For the past year, Pinochet has been under 24-hour police guard in a large home in an upper-income London suburb. When he does wheel his chair out into the yard, he is likely to hear the shouts--"asesino! genocido!"--of protesters who have set up a more or less permanent encampment on the road outside.

The Pinochet case also has become a bitter point of dispute in British politics. Conservatives, led by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, have rallied to his defense, but many liberals have demanded that Pinochet face trial. Although Straw comes from the liberal wing of the governing Labor Party, the unanimous medical opinion he received should insulate him from criticism if he allows Pinochet to leave.