Pinochet stripped of immunity, but it might be years before trial

SANTIAGO, Chile - Chile's Supreme Court lifted Gen. Augusto Pinochet's immunity from prosecution on Tuesday, paving the way for the former dictator to be tried on human rights charges. But chances for a quick trial appeared slim.

Pinochet's supporters in Congress announced a bill to try to block a trial of the 84-year-old Pinochet on grounds of health. Pinochet suffers from diabetes, uses a pacemaker and has had three mild strokes.

Even Eduardo Contreras, a lawyer and Pinochet opponent, predicted putting Pinochet on trial could take ''up to eight years.''

The court voted 14-6 to allow Pinochet to be prosecuted on charges stemming from his 1973-90 rule, court secretary Carlos Meneses said.

Ensconced in his heavily guarded suburban Santiago mansion, Pinochet received a show of solidarity from the military, as army chief, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, and eight other generals visited.

''History has not yet been fully written, and when that happens, you can be assured that Gen. Pinochet will receive the place he deserves in it,'' Izurieta said.

A government report says 3,197 people died or disappeared at the hands of Pinochet's secret police after he toppled the country's elected Marxist president Salvador Allende in a 1973 coup.

Efforts to prosecute Pinochet center on the so-called ''caravan of death,'' a military squad that executed 72 political prisoners after the coup.

In a 49-page ruling, the court said Pinochet should respond as to whether he gave authority to the members of the caravan, as the plaintiffs alleged.

The government said the ruling ''shows the full independence of the courts and the fact that everybody in Chile is equal before the law.''

''Our obligation is to respect what the courts decide,'' President Ricardo Lagos said.

The United States hailed the court's ruling.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, ''The decision is clearly historic. It's significant for Chile, for the rule of law and for the promotion and protection of human rights.''

''The decision affirms the fundamental principle that no one stands above the law,'' he said. ''We certainly hope that it will contribute to the resolution of long-pending human rights issues and further advance the process of justice and reconciliation in Chile.''

The Supreme Court had voted last week, but the decision was only announced Tuesday once it had been written out and signed by the justices.

The court turned down Pinochet's appeal of a lower court decision in June, stripping him of the immunity he had as a senator-for-life, a post he created for himself in the constitution written under his regime.

''This was a completely political process from the beginning,'' Pinochet's younger son, Marco Antonio, charged.

''If a trial takes place, my father will almost certainly not see its end, but I will fight all the way,'' he said.

Friends and foes of Pinochet were kept a block apart behind police barricades outside the century-old court building. As the news of the ruling came, the anti-Pinochet demonstrators, mostly relatives of victims and members of leftist groups, cheered and applauded. Many embraced. Some wept.

Viviana Diaz, president of an organization of dissidents missing under the dictatorship, called the ruling ''a step toward justice.''

Several hundred anti-Pinochet demonstrators marched to the newly inaugurated monument to Allende outside the presidential palace. Allende's daughter, congresswoman Isabel Allende, tears in her eyes, was among the marchers.

Pinochet's followers were disbanded by police after they shouted insults and tossed coins and fruit at bystanders.

They later assembled at the Pinochet Foundation to hear its director, retired Gen. Luis Cortes, call the ruling ''the last link in a chain or revenge against Gen. Pinochet organized by Chilean and international socialism.''


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