Judge Declares Pinochet Fit to Face Human Rights Charges
By LARRY ROHTER
BUENOS AIRES, Dec. 13 - A Chilean judge ruled today that Gen. Augusto Pinochet was competent to stand trial for human rights abuses that occurred while he was in power, and the judge charged the aged former Chilean dictator with nine counts of kidnapping and one of murder.
Judge Juan Guzman Tapia also ordered that General Pinochet, 89, be placed under house arrest and confined to his mansion on the outskirts of Santiago, the capital. The general's lawyers announced that they will appeal the decision.
If the decision were overturned by higher courts, General Pinochet would be exempt from having to stand trial, on medical and legal grounds.
"Pinochet has been declared mentally fit to undergo criminal investigation in Chile in all of its stages," including "face- to-face interrogations," Judge Guzman told reporters waiting for the decision at a court downtown.
That includes "depositions and face-to-face interrogations" about his role as what the judge described as "the perpetrator of crimes" against political opponents while head of state in the 1970s.
President Ricardo Lagos, who has argued that the various judicial proceedings must be allowed to run their course without interference by the executive branch, had no immediate comment on the ruling. But the president of the State Defense Council, Clara Szczaranski, welcomed the decision, saying that "with such serious charges against him, the country needs a thorough investigation to prove what actually happened and what his responsibility was."
Today's decision reversed earlier court rulings that thus far have allowed General Pinochet to avoid facing any charges stemming from human rights abuses during the nearly 17 years he was in power, 1973-1990. During that time, an estimated 4,000 political opponents were killed by state security, military and police forces, many after being kidnapped or forcibly disappeared, and thousands more were jailed, tortured or driven into exile.
"This time is different," said Viviana Diaz, a leader of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared. "Guzman probably feels he is supported by other judges who are also advancing in human rights investigations and by the Supreme Court," which last month confirmed sentences against human rights violators in the military rather than allow an amnesty law to be applied.
The indictment that Judge Guzman filed today arose from Operation Condor, a joint intelligence program set up by South America's military dictatorships in 1976 to kidnap and kill political dissidents from member countries who had gone into exile in other participating countries. Besides Chile, which took the lead in organizing the initiative, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay also took part.
"If there were ever a case that shows that a head of state had to be involved in these atrocities, it is Condor," said John Dinges, the author of "The Condor Years" and one of the experts Judge Guzman consulted. "I have evidence that Pinochet was actually at the meeting when Condor was formed, and it is impossible to believe that subordinates would create something as elaborate as Condor without the explicit approval of the head of state."
Relatives of victims of Operation Condor endorsed the court action. Jenny Stoulman, whose father and mother disappeared after disembarking from a plane here in Argentina in 1977, praised Judge Guzman for being "persistent, serious and dedicated" despite official resistance or indifference in Chile to efforts to hold General Pinochet accountable for human rights abuses.
"So many years have gone by without any real information about what happened to our parents," she said. "Now we have hope that some truth will come to light, though I know it will be a slow process."
The ruling is the latest in a series of recent setbacks for the general. In July, the United States Senate published documents indicating that he had secretly deposited as much as $8 million in accounts at Riggs Bank in Washington, a revelation that has prompted formal investigations by the Congress, judiciary and tax service here that are expected to lead to the filing of additional criminal charges.
In addition, an appeals court earlier this month stripped General Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution in the assassination of Gen. Carlos Prats, who was one of his predecessors as Army commander. General Prats, who opposed the coup that brought Gen. Pinochet to power, and his wife, Sofia, were forced into exile in Argentina and killed here in 1974 when a bomb exploded and destroyed their car.
This is the second time that General Pinochet has been indicted for human rights abuses that occurred during the long military dictatorship he led. In 2001, he was charged in connection with the so-called "Caravan of Death," a military operation that took place shortly after his seizure of power on Sept. 11, 1973, and which resulted in the deaths of some 75 people.
That case, however was appealed to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled that the former dictator was mentally and physically unfit to stand trial. Doctors who were asked to examine General Pinochet found that he suffered from what they called "mild dementia," or senility, as well as diabetes and a heart ailment.
When the Operation Condor charges emerged, however, Judge Guzman ordered another battery of medical tests and also interviewed General Pinochet himself, in late September. In explaining today's ruling to reporters, Judge Guzman said that General Pinochet's "coherence, his comprehension of the questions made to him, and his answers" when the two men met all influenced the decision.
Sebastian Brett, the Chile representative for Human Rights Watch, said that Judge Guzman had been "extremely thorough and detailed in sifting through the medical evidence." But he added that higher courts "may well reach a different conclusion," especially since a new penal code goes into effect next year that is "much more explicit in guaranteeing due process rights and allowing defense lawyers to challenge a trial on those grounds."
Judge Guzman also said that a controversial interview General Pinochet gave in November 2003 to a Spanish-language television network in the United States was "one of the elements I took into consideration to make this decision." In that broadcast, General Pinochet appeared both lucid and defiant, arguing that "everything I did, I would do again, everything was thought through."
"Who am I supposed to ask for forgiveness?" General Pinochet also said in response to one of the television interviewer's questions. "They are the ones who have to ask me for forgiveness, the Marxists."