BUENOS AIRES — A Chilean judge on Friday ordered former dictator Augusto Pinochet to stand trial on charges of kidnapping connected to the crimes of a roving military death squad months after the general's 1973 coup.
Although the indictment was yet another blow to the crumbled power of the 85-year-old former ruler, the chances of a speedy trial remain uncertain. The infirm Pinochet has yet to undergo legally mandated tests to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial.
And Pinochet's lawyers said they will file a motion seeking to void the indictment by investigative magistrate Juan Guzman, who ordered Pinochet placed under house arrest. Delays could also arise from appeals and a laborious court system in which trials are lengthy procedures based on written briefs.
Nevertheless, the surprise development in the case made good the argument used by Chile's center-left government to urge Pinochet's release when he was being held last year by British authorities: Chilean democracy is strong enough to withstand a trial of Pinochet.
"In our country, it is perfectly possible to do justice," said Ricardo Nunez, a leader of the ruling Socialist Party. "The rule of law is sufficiently solid for a resolution of this nature to have been taken."
Pinochet's lawyer responded by calling the indictment an "aberration."
The judge "has joined the judicial orgy we are seeing by people who want to occupy the courts to impose a version of our historic past," said Fernando Barros, a member of the defense team.
The crimes of the so-called caravan of death are part of the strongest case implicating Pinochet directly in the atrocities of a 17-year regime that killed an estimated 3,000 people. It features testimony by high-ranking military officers describing how a general acting under Pinochet's orders abducted and executed political prisoners in northern Chilean towns.
The case focuses on kidnappings rather than murders to circumvent an amnesty for crimes committed during the dictatorship; kidnapping is considered ongoing if the victims, even when they are presumed dead, have not been found.
Both sides were somewhat puzzled by Guzman's decision to order the trial before interrogating Pinochet or conducting medical tests whose result could block the proceedings. Some lawyers following the case said Guzman's seemingly hurried decision resulted from political considerations, namely an effort to remove him from the prosecution.
Guzman has been criticized by Pinochet's admirers because he wrote a letter of support to Clara Szcsaranski, Chile's public defender, who has been accused of unethical conduct. Because Szcsaranski is a plaintiff in the "caravan of death" case, Chilean rightists seized on the letter as evidence of bias and lack of judgment.
Defense attorney Barros accused the magistrate of wanting "to leave the case with a display of fireworks." Even some human rights lawyers speculated that Guzman might have wanted to raise the profile of the case and reinforce his image.
But others said Guzman is the latest target of a concerted public relations offensive by the Pinochet camp.
Pinochet stepped down in 1990 after he lost a voter referendum on whether he should stay in power. He spent 17 months under house arrest in London at the request of a Spanish judge trying to prosecute him for torture, and was released in March on grounds of ill health. He faces about 180 criminal lawsuits in Chile.