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Chile's High Court Strips Pinochet of Immunity in Deaths of Dissidents

The 9-8 ruling comes as part of a decades-long effort by human rights activists to see the former dictator held accountable for killings.

August 27, 2004|Hector Tobar and Eva Vergara | Special to The Times

SANTIAGO, Chile — The Supreme Court of Chile stripped former dictator Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution Thursday, a landmark ruling in the decades-long effort by human rights activists to bring him to justice for the killing of civilians during his rule.

By a 9-8 vote, the Supreme Court said Pinochet should be stripped of the legal protections he enjoyed as a former president. The ruling came in a case involving 19 dissidents who were slain in the 1970s and 1980s as part of "Operation Condor," a plan by which right-wing South American regimes set up a shadowy alliance of intelligence agencies to eliminate leftists.

"Today, this country awakens as a more democratic place, because this verdict has shown there are no untouchables," said Eduardo Contreras, an attorney who brought the charges on behalf of the dissidents' relatives.

The ruling was the latest in a long legal saga played out in courtrooms from Santiago to London, where Pinochet spent 16 months under house arrest beginning in October 1998 as part of a failed attempt to have him extradited to Spain to face human rights charges.

In recent years, there has been a gradual but significant change in the political and legal climate in Chile, as the country pursues a long and painful break with its authoritarian past.

In 2003, Chile officially mourned President Salvador Allende for the first time since his suicide during the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power. Congress has passed reforms giving prosecutors more resources to pursue human rights cases.

In the courts, meanwhile, several new legal proceedings were opened against the former dictator. On Tuesday, a judge called Pinochet to testify in the case of Victor Jara, a folk singer killed during the coup who has become an icon and martyr of the Latin American left.

More than 100 human rights activists and relatives of the victims who gathered outside the court Thursday greeted the ruling with boisterous celebrations.

"The barriers that kept all of us in this country from being equal in the eyes of the law have been broken," said Isabel Allende, a congresswoman and the niece of Salvador Allende.

More than 3,000 people were killed for political reasons during Pinochet's rule, which ended in 1990.

The ruling also appears to demonstrate a slow if unsteady shift in the legal community's attitude toward the 88-year-old former leader.

Though the Supreme Court in 2000 had sought to eliminate Pinochet's immunity in another case, only to have Congress reimpose the protection, the justices ended that prosecution two years later by ruling that he suffered from dementia and was not mentally fit to stand trial.

Since then, however, several justices have retired, changing the face of the court. Only one remaining member is an appointee of the military dictatorship.

Several justices said in Thursday's ruling that the lower-court judge investigating the current charges should proceed quickly to reevaluate Pinochet's mental state -- raising the possibility that even that apparent barrier to prosecution could come down.

Contreras and other attorneys have argued that Pinochet is in good health, citing recent revelations that he has had extensive dealings with officials at the Washington-based Riggs Bank about once-secret accounts he maintains there.

They also point to his lucid speech in a November television interview with a Miami television station.

"I have neither hatred nor resentments," the former general said then. "I am good, I feel like an angel. What am I really like? I don't know. I've never analyzed myself. I never complain, I never cry."

Pinochet also denied that he had ordered anyone killed. "Above all, I am Catholic. In all political struggles there are excesses and people who cannot be controlled, subordinates who act and then keep quiet."

The protracted legal battle over the former leader's fate is expected to escalate.

"Sooner rather than later, Pinochet will once again have the charges dismissed for the medical reasons that were previously established by the court," said his attorney, Ambrosio Rodriguez.

Retired Gen. Guillermo Garin, a Pinochet spokesman, said he was "somewhat surprised" by the ruling "because the health of former President Pinochet has not varied one bit. His illnesses are progressive and irreversible."

But critics of the former regime argued for speedy legal steps even as they praised the court's ruling.

Lorena Pizarro, whose parents were killed during the dictatorship, called for quick action in the courts. "Pinochet must be put on trial for every one of the crimes for which he is responsible," Pizarro said.

Government spokesman Francisco Vidal said the ruling showed that "no one is above the law" and demonstrated the progress made in democratic Chile toward uncovering what happened during the Pinochet dictatorship.

"What we have been lacking is what comes after you discover the truth, which is justice," Vidal said.

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