High Court Gives Pinochet a Reprieve

21 December 2000

Chile's Supreme Court today threw out an indictment and house arrest order against retired Gen. Augusto Pinochet, but it also cleared the way for a new indictment.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Chile's Supreme Court today threw out an indictment and house arrest order against retired Gen. Augusto Pinochet, but it also cleared the way for a new indictment in as soon as three weeks.

The ruling drew praise from supporters of the ailing 85-year-old former dictator, who were incensed by the Dec. 1 indictment. But it also heartened his opponents, who seek to bring him to justice for crimes allegedly commited during his authoritarian, anti-leftist rule from 1973 to 1990.

After a two-day hearing, a panel of justices agreed 4-to-1 with a lower court's decision that Pinochet had been denied due process because he was not formally interviewed, or deposed, before being indicted on kidnapping and murder charges. But in a twist that led Pinochet opponents to celebrate, the court also ordered that he be deposed within 20 days - after which he could be indicted again on the same charges.

The indictment centered on allegations that Pinochet masterminded the kidnapping and murder of 74 dissidents during a military operation known as the "death caravan" shortly after his 1973 overthrow of President Salvador Allende, a democratically elected Socialist. Almost 200 criminal cases are pending against Pinochet in Chile, but the caravan case is the most extensively documented.

The court deadline set Pinochet's attorneys in a race against the clock: To avoid another indictment, they must try to halt legal proceedings against Pinochet by showing he is medically unfit for trial before the Jan. 9 date the court set for his deposition.

An appeals court ruled two weeks ago that medical exams - required for all defendants over 75 - must be conducted before the investigating magistrate who indicted Pinochet, Juan Guzman, could conduct a deposition. But in today's ruling, the Supreme Court said essentially that Pinochet could be indicted after a deposition is taken, medical exams or not.

While hailing the court's decision to strike down the indictment, Pinochet's supporters vowed to challenge any attempt to depose Pinochet before the medical tests can be arranged. "We are not going to permit any abuses or excesses," Pablo Ramirez, one of Pinochet's attorneys, told reporters in Santiago, the Chilean capital.

The tests remain Pinochet's best escape route, and he got some help from a separate appeals court decision Tuesday granting a petition that the general can be examined at a military hospital. However, the court also ruled that civilian physicians can be present and outside experts can review the exams, which will include neurological and psychological tests.

But the tests themselves may not be as important as how they will be interpreted legally. If Pinochet, who is said to be suffering from severe memory loss and other cerebral problems, is found to be mentally incapacitated, he would be exempt under Chilean law from further legal proceedings.

His opponents insist that any determination must be in accordance with a legal standard that grants dispensations to the "mad or demented." Senility, legal scholars have said, could fit that definition. But Pinochet's family and supporters argue that another exemption, based on international human rights law, should give Pinochet a more honorable way to avoid trial by declaring him physically incapacitated.

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company