July 20, 1999

Chile rejects plea to dismiss "Death Caravan'' case

                  SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) -- Chile's Supreme Court refused on Tuesday
                  to dismiss a case against five retired military officers accused of murdering
                  and kidnapping 76 people in 1973 after Augusto Pinochet seized power in a
                  bloody coup.

                  The decision by the country's highest court meant Sergio Arellano Stark and
                  four other members of the so-called "Death Caravan" remained under arrest.
                  It kept alive the landmark cases against them.

                  The infamous "Death Caravan" was a military squadron that roamed from
                  town to town in October and November 1973, following the September
                  coup, searching for leftist opponents of Pinochet, who went on to rule with
                  an iron fist for 17 years.

                  More than 3,000 people died or disappeared during Pinochet's 1973-1990
                  regime. Thousands fled into exile rather than live under military rule.

                  Crusading Judge Juan Guzman opened a murder and kidnapping case
                  against Arellano Stark, Marcelo Moren, Patricio Diaz, Sergio Arredondo
                  and Pedro Espinoza on June 8.

                  Guzman's action came after citizens brought lawsuits against the five. Under
                  Chilean law, individuals and groups can file lawsuits that -- once agreed to
                  by a judge -- become the equivalent of criminal charges.

                  The retired military officers were all under arrest. Arrellano Stark, who
                  allegedly headed the "Death Caravan" team, was being held in a military
                  hospital after an operation.

                  Espinoza was near the end of a six-year prison sentence for plotting the
                  1976 car-bomb assassination of Orlando Letelier, a foreign minister under
                  former President Salvador Allende. Letelier was killed in Washington.

                  Human rights activists welcomed the court's rejection of the appeals
                  launched by the five former military officials, especially given that kidnap
                  charges were outside a protective amnesty law approved in 1978 when
                  Pinochet was in power.

                  "The ruling is a precedent and opens the door to other cases being
                  investigated because the vast majority of cases presented to the courts
                  involve kidnap," said Viviana Diaz, head of the protest group Families of the

                  Hugo Gutierrez, the lawyer representing families of victims, said the ruling by
                  the Supreme Court, which cannot be appealed, was historic.

                  "It is a ruling that is going to make the family members of the thousands of
                  detained disappeared eager to see that criminals stand trial," Gutierrez said.

                  Arellano Stark's lawyer Claudio Arellano planned to study new ways to
                  bring down the case against his client.

                  "We cannot stand still and be content with this decision. ... We will continue
                  studying the case to ask Judge Guzman directly, not through the law courts,
                  to annul the accusation presented against Gen. Arellano Stark," he said.

                  Separately, Guzman was investigating at least 22 lawsuits that accused
                  Pinochet of human rights abuses during his time in office. The former dictator
                  is currently under house arrest in London awaiting extradition proceedings to
                  Spain, where he faces similar rights charges.