Pinochet ordered to stand trial on homicide, kidnapping charges

SANTIAGO, Chile - A Chilean judge charged Augusto Pinochet Friday with dozens of deaths and disappearances that occurred during his 17-year dictatorship and ordered him placed under house arrest - moving the ailing former general a step closer to trial.

Judge Juan Guzman said he was moving to prosecute Pinochet for 55 deaths and 18 disappearances the came after his September 1973 coup. Pinochet ruled until 1990.

No trial date was set and appeals over the fitness the 85-year-old former strongman to stand trial could drag on for years.

Friday's indictment arises from the so-called ''Caravan of Death'' in which a military death squad traveled the countryside in the months after the coup against Socialist President Salvador Allende, pulling leftist prisoners from jail to be executed.

According to a report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet, a total of 3,197 people disappeared or were killed while he was in power.

Guzman, who won an earlier battle this year to strip Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution, has surprised Chileans with his success at going after the general and deeply divided this South American nation of 14 million.

While many Chileans want Pinochet punished, others, especially in the military, see him as having saved Chile from communism and helped found the modern Chilean state.

A move to bring Pinochet to justice was unthinkable until October 1998, when his house arrest in Britain touched off the general's long court battle to avoid prosecution in Spain on torture charges.

Released last March for health reasons, he flew home to face a rising tide of criminal complaints - now 187 lawsuits against him - in courts no longer under his thumb.

Pinochet's lawyers have been battling to keep him from going to trial, arguing he is ill. Guzman has ordered psychiatric and physical tests, and those are pending. A judge will eventually decide if Pinochet is fit to stand trial.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, called the indictment ''an excellent development'' and said it helps ''re-establish the credibility of the Chilean judiciary.''

But supporters of the former dictator denounced it as a travesty of justice.

''This is an aberration of jurisprudence,'' said lawyer Fernando Barros, who has frequently spoken in defense of Pinochet. He said the indictment was an attempt by ''certain persons'' to rewrite history.

Last week, Pinochet made a hesitant admission of responsibility for military excesses during his rule in a taped message for his 85th birthday.

''As a former president of the republic, I accept all the facts that they say the army and the armed forces did,'' Pinochet said. But he also added that some of the accusations against his government are just propaganda.

Chile's President Ricardo Largos said he wouldn't get involved in the court battles. ''The courts will be the ones to decide this,'' he said.

The Caravan of Death has been well known for years, but new details have emerged recently as investigators have made it central to their case against Pinochet.

Traveling by helicopter, military men with grenades, machine guns and knives went from city to city, pulling leftist opponents from jails before they were tortured and executed.

''This is the mission that founded the dictatorship,'' said Patricia Verdugo, an investigative reporter in Chile who said the mission defined the brutality of his military government.

Family and victims contend Pinochet was the ''intellectual author'' of the death squad mission and had clear control over the officer who carried out the killings.

The kidnapping charge refers to 18 caravan victims who are still missing. Until the bodies are found, the Supreme Court has agreed the cases can be considered kidnappings, and thus ''ongoing crimes'' exempted from a controversial amnesty law.

Lawyer Carmen Hertz, who lost her husband in the caravan, said Pinochet should never be pardoned.

''It is our view that an amnesty doesn't apply here,'' she said.


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