Chile court opens hearing on whether Pinochet can be tried

SANTIAGO, Chile - The Supreme Court opened hearings Wednesday to decide whether Gen. Augusto Pinochet should be tried on human rights charges. It also denied a request for medical tests of the ex-Chilean dictator to determine his fitness to stand trial.

Defense lawyers had hoped to use the health tests to block the start of the hearings. Attorneys wanted to prove that poor health would prevent the 84-year-old leader from getting a fair trial because he would be unable to organize an effective defense.

Pinochet has diabetes, uses a pacemaker and suffered three mild strokes during 16 months of house detention in London, where he was released after doctors said he was physically and mentally unfit to stand trial. He had been detained on a warrant by a Spanish judge wanting to try him.

The court was also considering Pinochet's appeal of a ruling that stripped him of his congressional immunity. By losing the protection he enjoyed as senator-for-life, Pinochet is open to charges related to one of the most notorious cases of abuse of his 1973-1990 dictatorship.

The complaint involves the ''caravan of death,'' a military squad that toured Chilean cities after a 1973 Pinochet-led coup, dragged 72 dissidents from prison and executed them. According to an official report, 19 people remain unaccounted for.

It is one of 146 criminal complaints filed against the former dictator for deaths and disappearances blamed on his regime.

The three days of hearings opened Wednesday amid tight security as scores of supporters and foes of Pinochet demonstrated noisily outside the court building.

The first day consisted of a closed-door session during which court official Ana Gloria Chevesich read a report on the state of the case before the 20 justices.

''The background gathered so far totally fails to show any relationship whatsoever between Gen. Pinochet and any criminal acts,'' said Pablo Rodriguez, another Pinochet lawyer.

Eduardo Contreras, a lawyer for one of several plaintiffs, said the report showed ''an undeniable position of command of Pinochet over (Gen. Sergio) Arellano,'' the leader of the caravan.

Pinochet's lawyer and seven lawyers for the plaintiffs are to argue their cases Thursday and Friday.

The court has no deadline for its ruling, which cannot be appealed. Chief Justice Hernan Alvarez said the decision will be made known ''as soon as possible.''

Pinochet, who was not required to appear in court, was calmly following the courtroom activity from his heavily guarded Santiago mansion, his son Marco Antonio said.


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