Chile court strips Pinochet immunity in tax case

October 19, 2005

Chile’s Supreme Court stripped former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution on Wednesday so he can face charges of tax fraud involving an estimated $27 million in offshore accounts, a court source told Reuters.

The decision upholds a lower court ruling, opening the way for the retired general to be indicted for tax evasion.

Pinochet, who is 89 and ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 after a military coup, has been stripped of his presidential immunity from prosecution in a handful of human rights cases but has not had to face the charges because his lawyers have successfully argued he was too ill for a criminal trial.

The defense team was expected to use the same tactic after Wednesday’s ruling. Pinochet has heart problems and mild dementia caused by frequent mini strokes related to diabetes.

The bank accounts have damaged Pinochet’s reputation domestically. The left has long accused him of being ultimately responsible for thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of tortures of leftists that occurred during his regime. But many Chileans had supported him, partially because he was seen as a clean leader in financial matters while so many other Latin American presidents and dictators have been corrupt.

Chilean courts have been trying for five years to bring Pinochet to trial in several human rights cases, but the focus of investigations shifted last year when it emerged that he hid millions of dollars under false names.

A judge investigating the accounts also asked the courts on Tuesday to strip Pinochet’s immunity so that he can be indicted for embezzlement. Immunity is decided separately for each case.

Prosecutors say Pinochet and his family stashed millions of dollars in more than 100 bank accounts outside of Chile. At least some of the money came from kickbacks from European weapons manufacturers, prosecutors have said.

The Pinochet accounts had repercussions for at least two banks so far.

Washington, D.C.-based Riggs Bank pleaded guilty to a criminal violation of the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act, an anti-money-laundering law, and agreed to pay $16 million for failing to report suspicious activity in Pinochet’s accounts. Riggs was subsequently acquired by another bank.

And the New York and Miami branches of Banco de Chile, Chile’s No. 2 bank, were fined $3 million for inadequate anti-money laundering programs.

Pinochet’s wife and youngest son have both been indicted as accomplices in tax evasion. They are accused of using false documents and passports to help move the money among the accounts.

Pinochet’s wife, Lucia Hiriart, was briefly detained, and his son Marco Antonio Pinochet was jailed for a few weeks in August until he was released on bail.

Pinochet underwent medical examinations on Tuesday to determine whether he was healthy enough to be tried for responsibility in the deaths of dozens of leftists in 1975, in a case known as Operation Colombo. The Supreme Court previously stripped him of immunity in that case.

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