Chilean Court Voids Pinochet Indictment, House Arrest
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
LIMA, Peru, Dec. 11 –– A Chilean appeals court today struck down the
indictment and house arrest of Gen. Augusto Pinochet on kidnapping and
dealing a potentially fatal blow to efforts to bring Chile's former dictator to trial on home soil.
A panel of three judges unanimously agreed with arguments by Pinochet's
attorneys that the ailing 85-year-old was denied due process because he
was not formally
interviewed, or deposed, before his indictment two weeks ago. That indictment by Judge Juan Guzman had appeared to open the way to a historic trial of Pinochet,
who ruled Chile for 17 years.
Prosecuting attorneys immediately appealed today's decision to the Chilean Supreme Court.
Pinochet's supporters, who view him as a national hero whose 1973 coup
saved the country from the leftist policies of President Salvador Allende,
today's decision as a "great victory." If the Supreme Court does not overturn the verdict, the decision could delay another indictment for months or years, or possibly
avoid one altogether.
"It definitely sets up the possibility that Pinochet's lawyers will
get their way--that they delay and delay the start of any trial," said
Marta Lagos, a Santiago-based
political analyst. "Perhaps, if Pinochet is as ill as they say, they will be able to delay until he is dead."
The decision was based on technical grounds and did not consider on
Pinochet's guilt or innocence on charges that he masterminded the kidnapping
and murder of
74 dissidents during a military mission known as the "caravan of death" shortly after his coup. The case is the most explosive and well-documented of the 189
criminal lawsuits pending against Pinochet in Chile, where more than 3,000 people disappeared or were killed in political violence and tens of thousands were
tortured before Pinochet stepped down in 1990.
In their ruling, the judges rejected Guzman's argument that an unanswered
questionnaire he sent to Pinochet while the ex-dictator was under house
arrest in London in
1999 met the legal requirement of a deposition.
Under Chilean law, Guzman acts both as judge and investigator. However,
before Guzman can take a deposition, Pinochet will be allowed to take state-mandated
medical exams. Pinochet's legal team has been successful at delaying those exams, one reason why Guzman moved to indict Pinochet on Dec. 1 without having first
conducted a deposition in person.
The exams could prevent a trial altogether if Pinochet, who has suffered several mild strokes in recent months, is found to be mentally incapacitated.
Pinochet's opponents today insisted that any exemption must stick to
the letter of Chilean law. It grants medical dispensations only to those
who are "mad or
demented." Though legal scholars say senility could fall under that definition, such a designation has been fought by Pinochet's family and supporters to avoid tainting
They have argued instead that he should be exempted for the gentler reason of not being physically capable of defending himself.
"This is a very important step for us," Pablo Rodriguez, one of Pinochet's
lawyers, said of today's decision. "We believe that once the results of
the medical exams are
known, they will demonstrate that General Pinochet is not in condition to defend himself, and therefore he can't be guaranteed due process."
Chile's judicial system became emboldened to act against the long-feared
ex-dictator following his arrest in London in October 1998 and subsequent
detention as he fought extradition to Spain for trial for alleged atrocities committed while he was in power.
Today's verdict came after the still highly influential Chilean military
stepped up political pressure to protect its patriarch, demanding that
President Ricardo Lagos, a
Pinochet-era dissident, call a emergency meeting of Chile's National Security Council to discuss the issue.
Pinochet's opponents remain hopeful that the Supreme Court, which in
August stripped Pinochet of immunity from prosecution as a senator for
life, will prove more
sympathetic to their cause. But even a loss there would not derail their movement.
"We will continue forward, appealing when necessary to prevent Augusto
Pinochet from avoiding justice," said Viviana Diaz, president of the Families
Disappeared. "We know he is responsible for the crimes he was indicted for, and therefore, he has to be brought to trial and not be a privileged citizen."
Special correspondent Pascale Bonnefoy contributed to this report from Santiago, Chile.