Chile's Supreme Court yesterday stripped former dictator Augusto Pinochet of immunity from prosecution, paving the way for possible trials of the 88-year-old general on charges of human rights abuses during his 17-year rule.
The court's 9 to 8 decision, leaving Pinochet open to prosecution for his role in the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of 19 political dissidents, upheld a lower court decision earlier this year that lifted his immunity as a former head of state. On previous occasions, the Chilean court had refused to revisit the immunity issue because Pinochet had been found mentally unfit to stand trial.
In a hearing Wednesday, prosecutors argued that he was competent, citing evidence including recent disclosures that Pinochet secretly held and managed millions of dollars at Riggs Bank in Washington while he was under house arrest in London pleading that he was too sick to be extradited to Spain to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
The ruling, which cannot be appealed, suggested that the lower court judge investigating the 19 murders order new psychiatric exams for Pinochet.
Chile's high court had lifted Pinochet's immunity before, in 2000, but his defense lawyers argued -- and the following year the court agreed -- that mild dementia made him unfit for trial. Two further attempts to lift his immunity to face other human rights charges were turned down.
Pinochet's lawyers say they will argue again that he is mentally incompetent. "I believe that sooner or later, he will be exempted because of the medical reasons established by the Supreme Court [in 2001]," said Pinochet's lead attorney and former government official under his regime, Ambrosio Rodriguez, after yesterday's decision.
But human rights lawyers say it will be tougher this time because of the clarity of mind they say Pinochet showed in a Miami television interview in November and in the handling of his international financial transactions in recent years. Prosecutor Hiram Villagra said he is hopeful that today's ruling will allow for renewed investigation of scores of other human rights cases. "This decision set a precedent for future efforts to lift his immunity: The mental exams practiced on Pinochet in 2001 do not hold true for the 300 or so other criminal cases pending in courts. With this precedent, we can ask to lift his immunity for dozens of other cases now," Villagra said.
After years of wrangling in the courts over Pinochet's status in hundreds of different human rights cases, the ruling does not necessarily set a precedent for other cases against Pinochet. Additional decisions on immunity will have to be made in other cases.
"With all of the scandals surrounding the Pinochet family lately, we hope that the government and the courts understand that they have to clean the name of this country in the face of the international community, and there is only one way to do it: putting Pinochet on trial," said Lorena Pizarro, president of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared and daughter of a Communist Party leader who disappeared in the mid-'70s. Pinochet seized power from socialist president Salvador Allende in a bloody coup in 1973.
Pinochet's legal problems have been growing in recent months. Last month, Chilean investigators opened a probe into the source of the millions of dollars in Pinochet's accounts abroad following the release of a Senate report on possible money-laundering violations at Riggs Bank. The violations included evidence Pinochet actively managed as much as $8 million at Riggs from 1996 to 2002 to hide assets from international prosecutors seeking restitution for the families of his alleged victims.
The report sparked a judicial investigation into how Pinochet's wealth was accumulated, specifically whether it was obtained from state funds or other illegal means. And it set off a fierce debate among political conservatives who once backed Pinochet but are now reassessing that support and the political damage it could cause them. Within the past four weeks, a judge questioned Pinochet's wife and children, and finally, even Pinochet himself for 45 minutes.
"The decision is enormously significant," said Mark Falcoff, a Latin American scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "The discovery of the bank accounts at Riggs has put into motion a process within the Chilean right to distance themselves from Pinochet. This lifting of the immunity is proof of just how far that has gone. This could mean the de-Pinochetization of the Chilean right."
"The right wing doesn't want to carry any more baggage for Pinochet, and this gives them excuse to distance themselves," he said. "It's conceivable Pinochet will be tried."
A spokesman for the Latin American bureau of the State Department would not comment on yesterday's ruling, except to say, "We . . . fully respect the Chilean legal system." The Justice Department, which is probing activities at Riggs, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Special correspondent Bonnefoy contributed from Santiago.