Chilean supreme court opens door to Pinochet trial

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The Independent US

The Chilean Supreme Court formally stripped General Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution yesterday.

The Chilean Supreme Court formally stripped General Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution yesterday.

The court announced that its 20 judges had voted by a majority of 14-6 to clear the way for the General to be put on trial for the thousands of human rights abuses committed during his time in power. The verdict was reached almost a week ago but was kept secret until yesterday. There can be no appeal.

Security measures in the capital, Santiago, were stepped up in anticipation of widespread celebrations and protests.

The ailing ex-dictator, 84, will now face independent medical tests to confirm his mental capacity to stand trial for his role in the disappearance of 19 leftists during the 1973 political executions known as the "Death Caravans". But lawyers cautioned that the tyrant who ruled Chile for 17 years was unlikely to spend time in prison.

Eduardo Contreras, who two years ago filed the first of 157 criminal complaints against the silver-haired great grandfather, said Chilean legal procedures "could take up to eight years." Nevertheless human rights campaigners hailed the decision as a huge step for Chilean democracy. Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch said "It inspires confidence in Chilean democracy, and indeed helps rebuild trust in its judiciary. Yet this outcome would have been hard to imagine had British courts not broken the spell of Pinochet's immunity by declaring him subject to international justice."

The Supreme Court overturned General Pinochet's appeal against an earlier court decision, ruling that the heavy-handed tactics used by his security forces - plus his own alleged involvement in the death and disappearance of over 3,000 dissidents - constituted an abuse of power that warranted revoking the immunity that he enjoyed as a senator for life.

Outside the Supreme Court building in Santiago, hundreds of jubilant human rights activists with the photos of missing relatives pinned on their chests were kept separated by a metal fence from despondent Pinochet supporters who waved flags and mournfully sang the national anthem. President Ricardo Lagos called for calm, urging all sides to respect the verdict.

A dozen years ago, Mr Lagos, a socialist, was the first politician who dared point a finger and call General Pinochet a liar: his accusation was memorably broadcast on live television. The former Moscow envoy for president Salvador Allende was arrested after a left wing assassination plot against the dictator was thwarted. But after taking office in March, Mr Lagos vowed to let the judiciary run its course and not press for a witch hunt.

The Supreme Court decision was unimaginable just five months ago, when the world assumed that General Pinochet had been allowed to dodge a torture trial in Spain to retire with impunity in his homeland. Before handing power over to a transition government in 1990, the Pinochet legacy had been safeguarded through careful legal shields meant to protect him from future reprisals.

When General Pinochet retired as commander-in-chief of the armed forces two years ago, he still exerted a formidable political influence behind the scenes. Because military surgeons in Chile were terrified of possible retribution if they were to botch a delicate spine operation and cripple the ex-dictator, no Chilean doctor was willing to carry out what normally would be considered routine surgery. General Pinochet flew to Britain for medical treatment without hesitation.

Chile's erstwhile strongman was to return a pariah, after 503 days of house arrest in Surrey, awaiting extradition for a torture trial initiated by a crusading Spanish judge, Baltazar Garzon. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, finally sent the general back to Chile after medical reports showed him too infirm to undergo a trial.

To escape trial in Chile, General Pinochet would have to be declared "mad" or "insane" and his family is resisting the independent mental competency tests ordered by the court because they say his dignity is at stake. The General also has the right to refuse testifying in person, and may opt to reply to legal questions in writing - a tactic which would considerably prolong the trial process.

So far, General Pinochet has not made any public statement, but has kept to his villa, tended by his wife and five children.

A devout Catholic, the General who once claimed to be the only political prisoner in Britain now spends his day in prayer and studying military biographies of Bernardo O'Higgins, a 19th century hero of Chile's independence, who was forced to retire in disgrace.