The investigation of money laundering at Riggs Bank has helped reopen efforts in Chile to hold former dictator Augusto Pinochet accountable for alleged human rights violations during his 17-year rule.
Chile's Supreme Court said it will rule today whether Pinochet is mentally fit to stand trial -- with prosecutors using evidence of how he manipulated accounts at Riggs to argue that he is.
A Senate report released last month on possible money-laundering violations at Riggs suggests that Pinochet, 88, actively managed millions of dollars in recent years to hide assets from international prosecutors seeking restitution for the families of his alleged crimes. Critics say the information -- coupled with a television interview of Pinochet aired in Miami last year -- undermines Pinochet's long-standing claim that several strokes have rendered him too infirm to be charged and tried in court.
The report by the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations had a ripple effect in Chile, touching off a fierce debate and sparking a judicial investigation into the source of Pinochet's wealth. In the past four weeks a judge questioned Pinochet's wife and children, and finally, even Pinochet himself for 45 minutes. At a hearing yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments from prosecutors, who want Pinochet's immunity from prosecution lifted, and from Pinochet's attorneys, who want it to remain in place.
The 113-page Senate report detailed Riggs's handling of Pinochet's accounts totaling as much as $8 million from at least 1996 until 2002, when the accounts were closed because of pressure from bank regulators. In one example, the report recounts how Riggs officials helped set up offshore shell corporations to help Pinochet and his family disguise that they owned accounts that had been transferred from London.
"What has changed in this case, with the Riggs scandal, is that Pinochet was interrogated by a judge with the acquiescence of his own lawyers, implicitly admitting that their client is perfectly capable of participating in judicial proceedings," prosecuting attorney Eduardo Contreras said. He said the Miami interview showed Pinochet could recall events of 30 years ago with precision.
"If he is stripped of immunity this week, there may be an avalanche of requests to have him investigated for any of the other 300 criminal cases brought against him pending in courts," he said.
Defense attorney Ambrosio Rodriguez, a former top government official under Pinochet, said Pinochet "cooperated voluntarily with the judge" during the recent interrogation about his wealth, but only "within his limitations," and remains unfit to be tried.
Rodriguez presented a letter by the Cuban journalist who interviewed Pinochet, Maria Elvira Salazar, saying that Pinochet committed many mistakes, had mental lapses and was so often incoherent during the interview that it had to be "extensively edited."
The case the court will rule on today involves charges of kidnapping, torture and the disappearance of 19 political dissidents. If the court rules against Pinochet, he would no longer be shielded from prosecution in this case, and it will pave the way for similar requests in other cases.
The 17 Supreme Court magistrates must decide whether the army general, who seized power from socialist president Salvador Allende in a bloody coup in 1973, should be subject to investigation for his role in the kidnapping and disappearance of 19 victims of Operation Condor, a multi-country operation that was also responsible for the 1976 murder of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American colleague Ronni Moffit in a car bombing at Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C.
In addition to launching a probe into Pinochet's finances and becoming a factor in the pending Supreme Court decision, the Senate report caused the government of Chile to create a commission to investigate the sale of 51 state-owned companies during the Pinochet regime. A group of Chilean legislators plans to travel to Washington in the next month to gather firsthand information on Pinochet's accounts at Riggs.
"Since he doesn't have any known business activities, family wealth or other lucrative activities, it is reasonable to believe that the money may have come out of state coffers," said Clara Szczaranski, president of the State Defense Council, an independent government agency that has petitioned the court to investigate the source of Pinochet's wealth. Pinochet, either directly or through lawyers, has denied obtaining money through corrupt means.
Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000, following 17 months of house arrest in London while awaiting extradition to Spain on charges of crimes against humanity. The British Home Secretary had ended Spain's attempts to extradite Pinochet, ruling that his poor health rendered him unfit to stand trial. After his return, Pinochet was stripped of immunity of prosecution as a former head of state but in 2002 the Chilean Supreme Court judged him mentally unfit for trial.
Since then Pinochet and his wife have led a quiet life in their country estate 80 miles southwest of Santiago, largely ignored by politicians and the media. Now, the Riggs scandal has provided new fuel to Pinochet critics who say that in addition to being brutal, Pinochet is corrupt. Even many of Pinochet's supporters have been stunned by the news of millions of dollars in secret accounts.
Special correspondent Bonnefoy contributed to this report from Santiago.