A judge yesterday ordered Augusto Pinochet placed under house arrest after finding the former dictator mentally competent to stand trial for human-rights violations allegedly committed...
SANTIAGO, Chile A judge yesterday ordered Augusto Pinochet placed under house arrest after finding the former dictator mentally competent to stand trial for human-rights violations allegedly committed during his rule.
Judge Juan Guzman ordered Pinochet, 89, to face prosecution in the disappearance of nine people and the death of another. Those events were linked to Operation Condor, a joint plan by the dictatorships of several South American nations in the 1970s and ’80s to suppress dissent.
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But the retired general’s defense team quickly filed an injunction with the Santiago Court of Appeals, effectively freezing the house arrest until the court rules on it, probably in the next day or two.
Some 10,000 people were slain during a Pinochet-led 1973 coup and the 17 years of military rule that followed. Yesterday’s action marked the latest and most important in a series of legal defeats for the former general, whose support in Chile is fading in the wake of revelations that he secretly squirreled away millions of dollars in a U.S. bank.
“This is the culmination of many years of work,” said Eduardo Contreras, the human-rights attorney who in 1998 filed the first criminal complaint against Pinochet in Chile.
Contreras and other attorneys and activists in Chile have waged a many-faceted legal battle that has seen Pinochet gradually stripped of the immunity from prosecution that protected him after he stepped down from power in 1990.
Pinochet’s mental state was the last legal barrier to his prosecution in the Operation Condor case. His attorneys said he has “mild dementia” due to old age.
He also has diabetes, arthritis and a heart pacemaker.
“This is an abuse against the most elemental human rights of a person,” said Ambrosio Rodriguez, an attorney for the former ruler. “All Chile knows that General Pinochet is being persecuted by [Judge] Guzman … “
Guzman said that while Pinochet was clearly showing signs of diminished mental agility, the retired general was capable of reasoning and “impeccable logic.”
In a 50-page ruling, Guzman cited several statements Pinochet made during a television interview last year and in a recent question-and-answer session with the judge. Guzman said the former leader appeared to be lucid and concerned with how history would see him.
“I never aspired to be a dictator,” Pinochet said. “Look, in all political struggles, in every corner of the world, there are excesses. … I don’t want people in the future to think bad [of me], I want them to have the truth.”
Yesterday’s decision marked the second time Pinochet had been ordered to be placed under house arrest in Chile. In 2001, he was ordered held in a case related to the “Caravan of Death,” a military sweep that led to the summary executions of more than 70 leftist activists and officials of the government of deposed President Salvador Allende.
But the Supreme Court ordered Pinochet released after 41 days and the case dropped, saying he was mentally incapable of standing trial.
Pinochet also spent more than a year under house arrest in London beginning in 1998, during an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to have him extradited to Spain to face charges in the disappearance of Spanish nationals.
At that time Chile’s government, under pressure from the country’s conservative establishment, argued that he should be allowed to return home because he was a frail, elderly man whose actions as head of state should be protected by diplomatic immunity.
But the political climate in Chile has since changed dramatically.
In July, a U.S. Senate report revealed that Pinochet had squirreled away up to $8 million in Washington-based Riggs Bank, more than he could have earned on his government salary, his only declared source of income. His image as a stern but austere ruler has been tainted as Chile’s tax authorities investigate charges of “illicit enrichment.”
The Riggs Bank and Operation Condor investigations touch on just a few of the many criminal complaints against Pinochet, who once enjoyed immunity against prosecution both as a former president and as a “senator for life.”
Earlier this month, an appeals court stripped Pinochet of immunity in the assassination of a dissident Chilean general in 1974.
The decision means Pinochet could stand trial for the bombing that killed former army chief Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofia Cuthbert, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Prats had opposed Pinochet’s coup.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.