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In Landmark Decision, Chilean Court Strips Pinochet Immunity

By Sebastian Rotella and Eva Vergara

The Chilean Supreme Court stripped former dictator Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution Tuesday, in a decision that dealt the embattled senator-for-life his worst defeat ever in his homeland and reaffirmed the strength of Chile’s democracy.

The justices voted 14-6 to uphold an appellate court ruling in May that found sufficient evidence to remove the parliamentary immunity of Pinochet, 84, and allow his prosecution for crimes by the “caravan of death,” a roving army squad accused of murdering 72 people in 1973.

Given his age and ill health and the lingering judicial and political obstacles, the court’s decision could be the most severe punishment endured by Pinochet in Chile, where he toppled the elected president in 1973 and ruled for the next 17 years. The margin was wider than expected because nine justices were considered solid conservatives.

Although Pinochet’s aura of invincibility was shattered in late 1998 when he was arrested in Britain for alleged human rights abuses committed during his regime, Tuesday’s decision would have been unthinkable then. The ruling and the calm, even indifferent, reaction of most Chileans indicated that this nation has entered an era of increasingly independent institutions.

Exultant human rights activists said the ruling advanced a democratic transition that is continuing a decade after Pinochet stepped down as dictator and two years after he resigned as army chief.

“This shows that Pinochet is no longer above the law and that he must be judged,” said Viviana Diaz, head of a group of victims’ relatives. “Today, the course of history has begun to change.”

By the time British authorities released him in March on grounds of fragile health, Pinochet had lost considerable influence here. He has been hit with 157 criminal complaints, part of a flurry of prosecutions of high-ranking military officers accused of human rights abuses during the dictatorship.

Like those officers, Pinochet faces trial for kidnapping -- a legal strategy that circumvents his amnesty laws for the military on the grounds that the cases of victims who disappeared are ongoing crimes.

But no one expects to see him in handcuffs soon, if ever. A special investigative magistrate must seek medical exams required in Chile to determine if elderly defendants are mentally competent. Although Pinochet would avoid trial if he was deemed senile, his family and lawyers promised to resist the exams. They said they would prefer defending his innocence in court to a humiliating diagnosis that, in their view, would imply guilt.

Moreover, the laborious, paper-driven legal system here grants Pinochet privileges as a general that could delay an indictment on charges that he masterminded the caravan of death. He must first be interrogated, a process that his lawyers could request be conducted in writing rather than in person.

The center-left government appraised its victory Tuesday with the measured and firm tone set by Ricardo Lagos, a Socialist who endured jail and exile during the military regime. The president asked Chileans to accept the ruling and let the courts do their work.

“History judges events, but today it is our obligation to accept the verdict of the courts,” said Lagos, who took office earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Gen. Ricardo Izurieta, the army chief, led a group of 21 generals and admirals to Pinochet’s mansion to express their solidarity with him.

At the same time, though, the army chief reaffirmed his commitment to a recent pledge to human rights advocates to provide information on the fates of the estimated 1,200 victims of state terror who remain missing.

The commanders said little about Pinochet’s reaction to the ruling or his physical condition. Adm. Jorge Arancibia, the navy chief, said Pinochet took the news “with stoicism.”

Meanwhile, the former dictator’s son called the verdict “a political judgment that does not deserve respect.”

“We have to show the world this is a big lie, supported by the government,” the younger Pinochet told reporters in front of a crowd of long-faced partisans. “Even if my father is not able to see the end, I at least will continue to the end.”