Pinochet awarded criminal immunity in Chile

A constitutional amendment passed by Chile's congress at the weekend will shield General Augusto Pinochet from prosecution even if he is stripped of his parliamentary immunity by the courts.

Under the Dignity of the former President of the Republic Act, both General Pinochet and the recently retired president, Eduardo Frei, must resign as senators for life. The change in status will force the former dictator, 84, out of active politics but provide him new protection from the crusading judge Juan Guzman.

There are 77 cases of human rights abuses pending against General Pinochet in Chile and prosecutors were investigating more. The United States is also pursuing allegations that he ordered a Chilean envoy assassinated in Washington.

Neither Mr Frei, who pushed hard for this legal loophole, or General Pinochet attended Saturday's joint congressional session in Valparaiso. Both will now receive a monthly pension of three million pesos (£4,000), as will Patricio Alwyn, the centrist leader who succeeded General Pinochet.

Legislators from the Socialist Party of President Ricardo Lagos opposed the bill, but Christian Democrat allies in his centre-left coalition approved it, along with the conservative opposition.

Rights activists campaigned fervently for months against the amendment. Sebastian Brett, from Human Rights Watch in Santiago, said: "It awards lifetime criminal immunity as a mark of distinction."

Soon after the amendment passed by a 113-27 vote, hundreds of protesters with photos of their missing relatives pinned to their shirts took to the streets of Valparaiso, yelling: "Try Pinochet. End impunity."

Law experts are still puzzling over the new bill to determine whether there is any way to lift this presidential immunity. Conciliatory talks between human rights lawyers and four representatives of the armed forces will reopen tomorrow at the presidential palace. The most likely scenario is that General Pinochet will be ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.

La Tercera, a leading Santiago daily, said that this solution was increasingly acceptable to the government, the army and the intransigent right.

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