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Pinochet Competent, Must Stand Trial, Judge Rules

Special to The Times

A judge on Monday ordered Augusto Pinochet placed under house arrest after finding the former dictator mentally competent to stand trial for human rights violations allegedly committed during his rule.

Judge Juan Guzman ordered Pinochet to face prosecution in the disappearance of nine people and the death of another. Those events were linked to Operation Condor, a plan by which South America’s military rulers coordinated their activities in the 1970s and ‘80s. The former leader’s lawyers said they would challenge the decision before an appeals court and, if necessary, the nation’s Supreme Court.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 16, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Chilean victims -- An article Tuesday in Section A about the indictment of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet said approximately 10,000 people were slain during the 1973-90 military rule. An official Chilean report concluded that 3,197 people were killed or disappeared for political reasons during that period.

About 10,000 people were slain during a Pinochet-led 1973 coup and the 17 years of military rule that followed. Monday’s action marked the latest and most important in a series of legal defeats for the former general, whose support here is fading in the wake of revelations that he secretly squirreled away millions of dollars in a U.S. bank.

“This is the culmination of many years of work,” said Eduardo Contreras, the human rights attorney who in 1998 filed the first criminal complaint against Pinochet in Chile. “We hope that his property will now be confiscated ... and that he spends a long time in detention.”

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Contreras and other attorneys and activists in Chile have waged a many-faceted legal battle that has seen Pinochet gradually stripped of the immunity from prosecution that protected him after he stepped down from power in 1990.

Pinochet’s mental state was the last legal barrier to his prosecution in the Operation Condor case. His attorneys say the 89-year-old retired general is suffering from “mild dementia” brought on by age.

“This is an abuse against the most elemental human rights of a person,” said Ambrosio Rodriguez, an attorney for the former ruler. “All Chile knows that Gen. Pinochet is being persecuted by [Judge] Guzman, who didn’t even take into account the opinion of his own expert.”

Guzman said that while Pinochet was clearly showing signs of diminished mental agility with age, the retired general was capable of reasoning and “impeccable logic.” In a 50-page ruling, Guzman cited several statements Pinochet made during a television interview last year and in a recent question-and-answer session with the judge. Guzman said the former leader appeared to be lucid and concerned with how history would see him.

“I never aspired to be a dictator,” Pinochet said. “Look, in all political struggles, in every corner of the world, there are excesses.... I don’t want people in the future to think bad [of me], I want them to have the truth.”

Monday’s decision marked the second time Pinochet had been ordered to be placed under house arrest in Chile. In 2001, he was ordered held in a case related to the “Caravan of Death,” a military sweep that led to the executions of more than 70 leftist activists and officials of the government of deposed President Salvador Allende.

But the Supreme Court ordered Pinochet released after 41 days and the case dropped, saying he was mentally incapable of standing trial. Pinochet also spent more than a year under house arrest in Britain beginning in 1998, during an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to have him extradited to Spain to face charges in the disappearance of Spanish nationals.

At that time Chile’s government, under pressure from the country’s conservative establishment, argued that he should be allowed to return home because he was a frail, elderly man whose actions as head of state should be protected by diplomatic immunity.

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But the political climate has changed since then.

In July, a U.S. Senate report revealed that Pinochet had salted away millions of dollars in Washington-based Riggs Bank, more than he could have earned on his government salary, his only declared source of income. His image as a stern but austere ruler has been tainted as Chile’s tax authorities investigate charges of “illicit enrichment.”

Julia Urquieta, an attorney for the Communist Party, which was outlawed during Pinochet’s rule, called his indictment Monday “a historic ruling.”

“We hope that this indictment will finally allow him to be convicted for all his crimes against humanity,” Urquieta said. “In addition, he should be held to answer for having robbed the country.”

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The Riggs Bank and Operation Condor investigations touch on just a few of the many criminal complaints against Pinochet, who once enjoyed immunity against prosecution both as a former president and as a “senator for life.”

This month, an appeals court stripped Pinochet of immunity in the assassination of a dissident Chilean general in 1974. The decision means that Pinochet could stand trial for the bombing that killed former army chief Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofia Cuthbert, in Buenos Aires.

Times staff writer Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Vergara from Santiago.


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