MEXICO CITY - Gen. Augusto Pinochet, one of Latin America's most notorious ex-dictators, must stand trial on murder and kidnapping charges in connection with a massive conspiracy by South American military leaders to eliminate political foes, a Chilean judge ruled Monday.
If upheld, the ruling will be the most stunning of several recent reversals of fortune for the ailing, 89-year-old general who once boasted that "not even a leaf moves in Chile without my knowing it." Ruling from the Chilean capital, Santiago, Judge Juan Guzman declared that an interview Pinochet gave last year shows he is mentally competent to stand trial, reversing a previous court decision that he had mild dementia. Guzman placed Pinochet under house arrest.
Pinochet has denied any wrongdoing, describing himself as a "good angel" out to combat communism during his 1973-90 regime. His lawyers said they would appeal, a process whose outcome could take months.
Chilean officials recently have stepped up efforts for justice in the country's so-called dirty war, in which at least 3,000 people died and more than 27,000 others were tortured after Pinochet toppled a leftist leader and seized power with the backing of the U.S. government. Human rights groups in Chile and abroad hailed Monday's ruling as a milestone in that quest.
"Whether or not today's indictment leads to trial, it's an historic achievement given the untrammeled power Pinochet enjoyed for decades," said Miguel Vivanco, who heads the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.
Guzman indicted Pinochet for allegedly kidnapping nine dissidents and killing one during Operation Condor, a plan by South American dictators to suppress dissent during the 1970s and 1980s. In 2001 Chile's Supreme Court quashed Guzman's indictment of Pinochet earlier that year in a separate dirty-war incident in which 75 political prisoners died, deeming Pinochet mentally incompetent.
In yet another case, a Santiago appeals court stripped Pinochet of immunity earlier this month in connection with a 1974 car bombing in Argentina that killed a Pinochet foe, Chilean Gen. Carlos Prats, and Prats' wife.
Pinochet also is being investigated in connection with up to $8 million he and his wife had stashed in secret Riggs Bank accounts in the United States.