Pinochet is 'stripped of his immunity'

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The Independent US

The Chilean supreme court has voted to strip General Augusto Pinochet of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution, according to media reports in Santiago yesterday.

The Chilean supreme court has voted to strip General Augusto Pinochet of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution, according to media reports in Santiago yesterday.

The decision, leaked to radio stations in the capital by left-wing government sources, paves the way for the former dictator to be put on trial for human-rights abuses committed during his 17-year regime.

An official announcement could be made as early as tomorrow but, until the ruling is issued formally, the 20 judges of the court still have time to reconsider before they sign it. There can be no appeal.

The judges reached their verdict on Tuesday but refused to divulge the result. However, court sources said they had divided 11 to 9 against the general.

The first case General Pinochet may face is a criminal indictment for his role in at least 19 killings during the notorious "Death Caravans" when scores of jailed union leaders were removed from prisons in October 1973 and summarily executed. The position of "Senator for Life", which he created for himself, has until now shielded him from prosecution.

Juan Guzman, the prosecuting magistrate, said he had no immediate plans to push ahead with an indictment until the supreme court released an official document concerning the former ruler's status.

Since General Pinochet's return from 503 days of house arrest in Britain, where ill health was invoked to prevent his extradition to stand trial in Spain, he has been braced for prosecution in Santiago for torture and murder.

Under Chilean law, if this week's ruling is confirmed, the only way to avert a trial on the 154 pending charges is if the defendant, 84, is declared "demented" or "senile". Medical tests by court-appointed doctors, rather than the general's personal physicians, will be his next hurdle, even though his relatives and supporters consider them a potential humiliation and are adamant that his reputation should not be tainted.

The country remains divided over whether General Pinochet will go down as a military hero who spared Chile from Marxism or a tyrant who silenced more than 3,000 dissidents through state-sponsored murder. Following his bloody coup in 1973, in which the Socialist President Salvador Allende was killed, left-wing opponents were rounded up and tortured, and thousands were forcibly "disappeared".

For some Chileans whose relatives suffered during the Pinochet regime, the supreme court's decision to strip him of his immunity might be enough. It is doubtful if the elderly general, who suffers from diabetes, had three minor strokes while in Britain and who now wears a pacemaker, could survive a protracted trial. Carmen Hertz, a human-rights attorney whose husband was killed during the dictatorship, said: "To have the supreme court say there is enough suspicion of his guilt to strip his immunity would be our vindication."

President Ricardo Lagos, who was briefly jailed by the secret police after a left-wing plot to assassinate the dictator in 1986, has said that General Pinochet's fate is irrelevant to modern-day Chile. He said the people were "prepared for whatever ruling the court may issue" and must be more concerned with the future than with raising the ghosts of the past.

"What the ruling will show is that all institutions in the country function properly, and that is the way it should be," he said.