Court clears the way for Pinochet to stand trial

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The Independent US

A Chilean appeals court stripped Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, of his longstanding immunity from prosecution yesterday, in a move that could pave the way for his trial on human rights charges relating to his 17-year rule.

A Chilean appeals court stripped Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, of his longstanding immunity from prosecution yesterday, in a move that could pave the way for his trial on human rights charges relating to his 17-year rule.

The Santiago-based court voted by 14-9 to withdraw immunity from General Pinochet, who seized power in a 1973 coup that snuffed out 150 years of democratic rule in the South American nation, and led to the murder and "disappearance" of 3,000 political opponents.

The decision may still be appealed against before the Supreme Court, which has ruled in the past that General Pinochet, now 88, is physically and mentally unfit to stand trial. A report by court-appointed doctors two years ago found the former dictator suffered from diabetes, arthritis and dementia stemming from strokes, and has to wear a heart pacemaker.

Speaking in the Chilean capital, Santiago, the Supreme Court president Juan Gonzalez Zuniga confirmed that the "withdrawal of legal immunity concerns [a case] of the disappearance of opponents of the military regime".

The court did not elaborate on the basis for the ruling, which is expected to be disclosed within the next two or three weeks. General Pinochet, who relinquished power in 1990, remained a powerful figure during Chile's return to democratic rule, and kept immunity from prosecution as a former president.

The general's mantle of untouchability crumbled in October 1998, when he was arrested in London on an Interpol warrant issued by the Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon in connection with the deaths of Spanish citizens during his rule.

For the next 16 months, he was held under house arrest at a villa near Wentworth, Surrey, only escaping extradition to Spain after his lawyers argued that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.

Despite the fact that General Pinochet was freed to return to Chile in March 2000, the case was seen by many throughout Latin America as a landmark victory for the principle of universal justice, which paved the way for rights violators to stand trial in a third country.

Should the decision to strip General Pinochet's immunity be confirmed by the Supreme Court, he could be prosecuted in connection with the disappearance of nine left-wing activists who were arrested in Argentina in the framework of Operation Condor, a South American spy network that repressed opponents of those countries' military dictatorships.

Lawyers acting for General Pinochet, who was not required to attend the court, did not comment.

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