Pinochet arrested on human rights charges

The former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was placed under house arrest on human rights charges yesterday after a judge in Santiago ruled he was mentally fit to stand trial.

Judge Juan Guzman formally charged the former president with homicide and kidnapping in one of many cases concerning human rights violations committed during his miltary regime's 17-year rule.

General Pinochet, who was indicted over the abduction of nine opposition activists and the murder of one of them, was declared competent to face the charges after Judge Guzman studied an interview the 89-year-old gave to a Miami television channel in November 2003.

The ruling was made almost three months after the judge questioned the general, whose defence team had tried to claim he was mentally unfit to stand trial, and ordered him to undergo medical examinations with three doctors in order to determine the state of his health.

Announcing his conclusion, Judge Guzman said: "General Pinochet was declared mentally fit to stand trial in Chile.I find that he is very physically deteriorated, but he has coherence in his psychological capacity and he understands questions, gives appropriate answers. These are the reasons I believe he is fit to stand trial."

General Pinochet's defence quickly announced they would appeal against the indictment before the Supreme Court. "This is a tremendous violation of a person's most basic human rights," said the former leader's chief defence lawyer, Pablo Rodriguez, maintaining that Judge Guzman has been "persecuting General Pinochet for a long time".

He added: "General Pinochet was diagnosed with a mild dementia three years ago, and this condition has worsened since then. But in spite of this, Judge Guzman tries him."

Yesterday's ruling is the latest development in Judge Guzman's investigation into Operation Condor, a conspiracy implemented by six South American dictatorships in the Seventies and Eighties to eliminate their left-wing opponents.

The ruling was hailed by many as a momentous development in the fight to bring General Pinochet to justice. According to an official report issued soon after the restoration of democracy in 1990, an estimated 3,197 people died or disappeared under his rule.

Viviana Diaz, a member of a dissidents' organisation whose members disappeared during Pinochet's regime, called the ruling: "a historic decision that must be celebrated by all democrats ... This is great news for all those Chileans who do not accept impunity in the violations of human rights," she said.

The ruling marked the second time the former dictator has faced trial for abuses allegedly carried out during his tenure. In 2001, he was indicted for the so-called Caravan of Death, a mobile death squad responsible for the executions of 75 political prisoners in the weeks after the 1973 coup that brought him to power.However, he narrowly escaped facing charges after a Supreme Court ruled later that he was physically and mentally unfit to stand trial.

General Pinochet faces scores of other criminal suits. Families of those allegedly killed or "disappeared" claim he ordered the torture, kidnapping and assassination of dissidents. He is also being investigated for tax evasion or corruption after revelations this year that he had millions of dollars hidden in secret off-shore bank accounts.

Earlier this month, an appeals court stripped General Pinochet of immunity from prosecution for a 1974 car bombing that killed an exiled Chilean general and his wife in neighbouring Argentina.

Four years ago, attempts by the Spanish counter-terrorism Judge Baltasar Garzon to have General Pinochet extradited to Spain from Britain, where he had been arrested, failed because of his health.

The ruling resulted in General Pinochet being permitted to return to Chile.

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