Pinochet ruled fit for trial

Jen Ross
The Globe and Mail
January 5, 2005

Santiago: Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet moved a significant step closer to facing trial on kidnapping and murder charges yesterday when the country’s supreme court ruled that his prosecution could go ahead.

The 3-2 decision advances the long legal battle against General Pinochet to its furthest point to date. The court refused to throw out the charges on grounds he was mentally unfit to stand trial, in contrast to its ruling on the state of his health in a separate human-rights case in 2002.

As the court’s secretary announced the historic ruling, gleeful cries erupted from dozens of family members who lost loved ones during the 17-year military dictatorship that followed the general’s seizing power in 1973.

“At last, at long last, they’re going to try him,” gasped a woman with a faded black-and-white photograph of a disappeared relative pinned to her dress.

The case involves a homicide victim and nine people who disappeared as a result of Operation Condor, an offensive against political opponents conducted by South American dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s.

After the 1973 coup d’├ętat, an estimated 3,200 Chileans were killed or disappeared after being detained in a campaign to crush dissent.

Human-rights lawyers who have sought for years to prosecute Gen. Pinochet, now 89, said the ruling is a watershed.

“This is so significant, because this is a ruling handed down after this very court had exonerated Pinochet for dementia,” said prosecutor Eduardo Contreras. The decision may make it possible to bring further charges against the ex-dictator, he added.

In December, an appeal court ruled that Gen. Pinochet did not enjoy immunity from prosecution in a case involving the 1974 murder of Chilean General Carlos Prats and his wife. The supreme court is expected to issue its ruling on an appeal of that decision today.

Gen. Pinochet has also been investigated after siphoning millions of dollars out of Chile to secret bank accounts.

The court confirmed a lower appeal tribunal’s rejection of a bid by Gen. Pinochet’s lawyers to have the charges thrown out on grounds including his deteriorating health.

His lawyers said his condition has worsened since the 2002 ruling and argued that his mental impairment made his indictment and a house-arrest order illegal. But the judges held that he has appeared lucid on several occasions, including an interview with a Miami television station.

The court also refused to alter the indictment to accuse Gen. Pinochet of being an accomplice rather than mastermind of the alleged crimes. Human-rights lawyer Hugo Gutierrez said that indicated newfound resolve on the part of Chilean tribunals, formerly seen as sympathetic to members of the military regime.

Three of the judges involved in yesterday’s decision participated in the 2002 ruling. Two switched their votes this time to hold that Gen. Pinochet is fit to stand trial.

The legal road to yesterday’s ruling began in May, when an appeal court stripped the former ruler of his immunity from prosecution.

He was interrogated by investigating judge Juan Guzman in September, and underwent psychological and neurological tests in October.

The tests showed a deterioration in his mental health from “mild to moderate” impairment in 2001 to moderate subcortical dementia. Nevertheless, he was charged on Dec. 13.

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