Pinochet is stripped of immunity by court

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The Independent US

The Supreme Court of Chile yesterday stripped Augusto Pinochet, the country's former military dictator, of his immunity from prosecution - opening the way for him to be charged with human rights abuses and the alleged death and disappearance of more than 3,000 people.

The Supreme Court of Chile yesterday stripped Augusto Pinochet, the country's former military dictator, of his immunity from prosecution - opening the way for him to be charged with human rights abuses and the alleged death and disappearance of more than 3,000 people.

The court in Santiago, the capital, voted 9-8 to lift the immunity protecting the former president, overruling its own previous decisions that the 88-year-old was too physically and mentally ill to face prosecution. Two years ago, court-appointed doctors determined that General Pinochet had a mild case of dementia, used a pacemaker and suffered from diabetes and arthritis. He has had at least three mild strokes since 1998.

Human rights activists yesterday applauded the ruling.

Neil Durkin of Amnesty International said: "We absolutely welcome this decision. It is long overdue as far as we are concerned. This is the first real opportunity to ensure that those who commit human rights abuses are [brought] to justice."

Gen Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, having seized power in a coup, supported by the CIA, in which he overthrew Salvador Allende, who had been democratically elected. In the years of suppression that followed and during which time was he supported by the governments of the US and Britain, Gen Pinochet's regime was responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 people, according to the civilian government which followed him. Yesterday's ruling was in regard to a lawsuit brought on behalf of 19 victims of "Operation Condor", which campaigners say was a brutal plan of repression against opponents of the dictatorship. A government spokesman said the ruling cleared the way for an investigation into the general's role in the suppression.

Francisco Vidal, a cabinet minister, said: "Nobody is above the law." Lawyers had presented the Supreme Court with new evidence that suggested Gen Pinochet was capable of being put on trial. Part of this evidence was a television interview Gen Pinochet gave last year to a Miami-based, Spanish-language television station, in which he calmly talked about his rule, described himself as a "good angel" and blamed the abuses of his regime on others.

Lorena Pizarro, head of group that represents the relatives of victims of repression under Gen Pinochet's dictatorship, urged prosecutors to move quickly. "Pinochet has to be tried," she told the Associated Press. "He must pay for all the crimes for which he is responsible. This has to be the window of opportunity to bring human rights violators to justice."

The ruling - and the likely legal battle that will follow it - is one of several legal problems facing the ageing dictator. Earlier this month he was questioned by a judge about money being held on his behalf by the Washington-based Riggs Bank. Investigators say he may be implicated in corruption, money laundering and possibly arms and drug trafficking.

Gen Pinochet has long been running from prosecution. In 2000 he was allowed to return to Chile from Britain where he had been under house arrest. He was arrested in London, where he was receiving medical treatment, at the request of a Spanish judge. During his 16 months in Britain, Gen Pinochet was visited by former prime minister Lady Thatcher.

Gen Pinochet's spokesman, General Guillermo Garin, said: "This does come as bit of a surprise since the health of the ex-president has not changed."

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