August 28, 2004
Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is a step closer to being tried for atrocities committed under his 1973-1990 regime after a court stripped him of immunity from prosecution.
The 9-8 vote by the Supreme Court opens a new legal front against the 88-year-old general, who is also facing accusations of corruption over revelations he holds millions of dollars in secret US bank accounts.
The decision upholds a May 28 ruling by the Santiago Appeals Court to scrap Pinochet’s immunity in a human rights case involving Operation Condor – the massive crackdown by 1970s military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.
Although Pinochet has never been charged in connection with Operation Condor, government spokesman Francisco Vidal signalled the ruling cleared the way for a possible investigation. At least 3000 Chileans were murdered or disappeared under the Pinochet regime.
The ruling was the latest of dozens of human rights abuse cases working their way through the courts accusing Pinochet of using the secret police and military to kidnap, torture and murder left-wing opponents of his dictatorship.
It is the second time in recent years the Supreme Court has stripped Pinochet of his immunity, although his lawyers have repeatedly argued that he is physically and mentally unfit to stand trial.
Lawyers had presented new evidence suggesting Pinochet was fit to stand trial. The evidence included a 2003 televised interview in which he appeared lucid, holding a cane and calmly answered questions about his regime.
He told the interviewer from a Miami-based Spanish language television station he was not repentant for his rule, calling himself a “good angel” and blaming subordinates for any excesses committed under his iron-fisted regime.
Pinochet took power in a bloody September 1973 coup that toppled the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, said to have committed suicide with the presidential palace in flames after it was bombed by the Pinochet forces.
A report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet said 3197 people died or disappeared during his 17-year military dictatorship.
A Pinochet spokesman, retired general Guillermo Garin, expressed shock at the ruling. “This does come as bit of a surprise since the health of the ex-president has not changed at all,” he said, adding that Pinochet’s problems “are progressing and irreversible”.
Pinochet has cited health problems to avoid prosecution in Chile and Europe.
Arrested in London in 1998, Pinochet was held there for 16 months while courts decided whether he could be extradited to Spain to face human rights charges. Britain eventually allowed him to return to Chile, ruling he was unfit to stand trial.
While his lawyers have worked to fend off legal challenges in Chile, public opinion has shifted in recent weeks after an investigation identified US bank accounts said to be in his name at the Washington-based Riggs Bank with deposits ranging from $US4 million ($5.7 million) to $US8 million.
The accounts have raised suspicions of graft and embezzlement and Pinochet earlier this month answered questions during an appearance before a judge investigating the source of the money.
A protracted legal battle is expected, but human rights lawyer Eduardo Contreras praised the court decision on Pinochet as giving a new push to prosecuting Chile’s once all-powerful dictator.
“This shows there are no untouchables,” he said.