Human rights groups and activists for international justice said today that the fate of former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet no longer matters as much as the international legal precedents his case has established.

The activists protested Britain's announcement that Pinochet was medically unfit to stand trial on human rights charges and that it was moving toward abandoning the case against him. The British government has suggested Pinochet could be released from house arrest in London as early as next week.

"Even if he goes back to Chile, or stays [in Britain], this is still the most important juridical and ethical precedent since Nuremberg," site of the Allied trials of Nazi leaders after World War II, declared Federico Andreu Guzman, legal adviser on American issues at the London-based human rights group Amnesty International.

Britain's decision, announced by Home Secretary Jack Straw on Tuesday, would effectively end the 15-month-old case against the 84-year-old general, which began in 1998 when British authorities, acting on a Spanish magistrate's request for extradition, arrested Pinochet in London, where he had gone for medical treatment.

"The legal point has been made. There is no immunity for crimes against humanity and torture committed by a former head of state, who was a sitting head of state at the time," said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch in New York, referring to a decision in the case made last year by Britain's highest court.

Chilean President Eduardo Frei held open the possibility today that Pinochet might stand trial there on charges of genocide, torture and the disappearance of 3,000 political opponents during his 17-year rule, which ended in 1990.

"The point is irrevocable; what happens now has no bearing on the legal significance, or the practical significance, or the symbolic significance of the case," Dicker said.

Dicker, Andreu Guzman and other human rights activists challenged the legality of Britain's decision, criticizing the lack of public access to the information that led to Straw's preliminary finding. Straw based his decision on a conclusion reached by four physicians who examined Pinochet last week.

Samuel Pisar, a lawyer with offices in Paris and New York who is active in human rights causes, said: "The medical condition of Pinochet is something I cannot know and you cannot know. Is this for real, or a diplomatic excuse for getting him out of the country? . . . But if he is suffering from dementia, then the rule of jurisprudence, especially in England, is that he cannot stand trial."

The likelihood that Pinochet will never stand trial on these charges outside Chile "cannot and must not be a setback," said Pisar, one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in southern Poland.

"The Pinochet case was a landmark case because it took the entire legal thinking on this subject where it had never been before--where a former head of state was denied immunity and considered juridically responsible," he said.

Human rights activists paired the Pinochet case with another development in international law in 1999--the indictment of a sitting chief of state, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, for alleged crimes against humanity.

Milosevic and four senior government officials were indicted last May by the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on charges stemming from the execution and deportation of ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo.

Speaking of the Milosevic and Pinochet cases, and the launching of U.S.-led airstrikes against Yugoslavia on humanitarian grounds last spring, Pisar said: "The doctrine has been progressing relentlessly . . . to a point where the very underpinnings of the sovereign state have given way to human rights. That progress has been steady, and it will continue regardless of what happens to Pinochet."