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Pinochet to face trial in killing { December 14 2004 }

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Pinochet to face trial in killing
Former dictator linked to crimes in four countries
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff | December 14, 2004

BOGOT -- Retired General Augusto Pinochet was indicted and ordered placed under house arrest yesterday by a top Chilean judge on charges connected with the murder and kidnapping of political dissidents in four countries. The ruling is the latest twist in a prolonged legal battle that has spanned two continents over whether the former military dictator should be judged for human rights abuses committed during his 17-year reign.

The indictment relates to the kidnapping of nine dissidents and murder of another in Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile during Operation Condor, a secret plan by several South American military dictatorships to silence opponents. It is one of four investigations pending and about 280 complaints filed against the former Chilean dictator for widespread torture and disappearances after the 1973 coup against the elected socialist President Salvador Allende, and the failure to pay taxes and declare millions of dollars inside secret accounts.

Yesterday, Chilean Appeals Court Judge Juan Guzman said he is convinced that the former general is mentally and physically capable of facing charges. Guzman said he reached the conclusion after three months spent analyzing new reports by doctors, a deposition with Pinochet, and a lengthy televised interview last year with a Miami television station in which Pinochet described himself as a ''good angel" and attributed human rights abuses to his subordinates.

Relatives of victims celebrated yesterday's decision, while Pinochet's attorneys pledged to challenge the indictment in the Supreme Court.

Earlier attempts to bring him to trial in Chile and Europe have been unsuccessful. An effort by a Spanish judge in 1998 to extradite Pinochet to try him for genocide while the former general was visiting London failed after British doctors found him mentally and physically unfit to stand trial. Meanwhile, Guzman was assigned in 1998 by the Chilean appellate court to begin investigating Pinochet. After Pinochet returned home, Guzman began proceedings against him for his involvement in the ''Caravan of Death," the killing of 75 dissidents by a mobile military squad in 1973, but the Supreme Court judged him incompetent to stand trial in 2002.

Pinochet, now 89, suffers from a mild to moderate case of vascular dementia, according to numerous court-appointed doctors. He also has diabetes and uses a pacemaker, and lives in virtual seclusion in a Santiago mansion and a home near the sea.

The ruling yesterday follows a recent admission by Chile's military of its ''institutional responsibility" for human rights violations under Pinochet. A report issued shortly after the return to democracy determined in 1991 that 3,197 people had died or disappeared.

On the streets of Santiago yesterday, the reaction was divided between those who still consider the general a hero who saved them from Marxism and others who blame him for 17 years of unlawful rule and widespread suffering.

Javier Gonzalez, a 73-year-old retiree, called the ruling ''very sad because Pinochet's illness hasn't disappeared; it has worsened. This is a real torture for the general, who is under extreme political pressure."

Others echoed the view of Reinaldo Lopez, 48, a supermarket security guard, who rejoiced that ''finally, we are seeing justice in this country. I hope that now the Supreme Court will not let him go like the other time and that the judges will do their duty, not like under the dictatorship when they did nothing."

A government report released Nov. 28 concluded that the Chilean courts were complicit with the repression of the dictatorship, ignoring nearly all 9,000 appeals for justice by political prisoners and families of the disappeared during the early years of Pinochet era. The same commission compiled testimonies of 35,000 people and concluded that 28,000 of them were without a doubt victims of abuse during Pinochet's regime.

Patricio Navia, a Chilean adjunct professor at New York University's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, said that despite yesterday's ruling, it is doubtful Pinochet will ever go to jail, not only because the legal process might outlast him, but also because under Chilean legal standards, he would be considered too old to imprison.

But ''putting him behind bars is less important than making clear that he was responsible for human rights violations," Navia said. ''What happened today is very significant, symbolically and historically. It will destroy efforts to present his legacy as positive, and . . . it sets a precedent: that dictators can be prosecuted for crimes they commit even if they establish amnesty for themselves."

Jose Zalaquett, a professor of ethics, government, and human rights at the University of Chile, said an important factor influencing many longtime Pinochet defenders to cool their support for him -- and feeding the growing belief that he is mentally competent -- were the disclosures this year that he has been managing between $4 million and $8 million in secret accounts at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. -- money he never declared in his years as president.

Pinochet's son was recently convicted of some petty crimes -- something unimaginable even a decade ago, Zalaquett noted in a telephone interview, calling it another sign that ''the Pinochets are not beyond the reach of the law anymore."

But Zalaquett cautioned that the courts should be careful to apply standard, impartial rules to protect the rights of defendants that would apply to everyone, ''whether Mandela, Mother Teresa, Hitler," or Pinochet.

Globe correspondent Eva Vergara contributed to this report from Santiago.

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