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CHILE
Pascale Bonnefoy
7/15/2002
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A court ruling erects a wall o

"Rage and impotence" were the reactions of the Group of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD) when the Supreme Court ruled on July 1 that it was throwing out the case against former dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-90) for the murders of 57 political prisoners and the disappearance of 18 others in October 1973.

The justices based their decision on Pinochet’s mental health, which they said was "unrecoverable."

The 4-1 ruling came nearly one year after the plaintiffs’ lawyers appealed a resolution issued by the Santiago Court of Appeals on July 9, 2001, which temporarily closed the case in which Pinochet was accused of cover-up in the case of the "Caravan of Death" (LP, July 23, 2001). The appeals court ruled that Pinochet could not stand trial because medical examinations at the Military Hospital had showed that he was suffering from "light to moderate subcortical dementia of vascular origin."

Insanity or dementia, which are poorly defined in Chile’s criminal code, are the only legal grounds for suspending a trial.

Three days after the Supreme Court ruling, Pinochet resigned his seat as a senator for life and took advantage of a statute that allows former presidents to receive a legislator’s salary and other benefits, including immunity from prosecution in cases related to government repression.

Technically, he is still under indictment for covering up the murders committed by the Caravan of Death, which was commanded by retired Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark under Pinochet’s orders, but the judicial proceedings against him cannot continue. Pinochet was indicted in February for having masterminded the Caravan of Death (LP, Feb. 12, 2001) and in March for covering up the crimes.

The court ruled that Pinochet was not "in full possession of his faculties" and would be unable to make the necessary contribution to his defense. In ruling that he was mentally unfit to stand trial, however, the Supreme Court did not issue an opinion about his guilt or responsibility.

Despite arguments by lawyers and other experts that Pinochet’s state of health does not constitute insanity or a mental problem but a gradual deterioration of motor functions, the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ request for new medical examinations.

The plaintiffs in the Caravan of Death case immediately asked the Supreme Court to review its ruling, saying that under Article 684 of the Criminal Proceedings Code, the judicial investigation must be finished before a case can be closed.

On July 4, however, Supreme Court President Mario Garrido Montt rejected the request. Juan Pavín, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, immediately filed a similar request. Other jurists could also file motions with the court.

"Pinochet is still the criminal that we always said he was, except now he’s a crazy criminal. We know that this alleged dementia is a lie. It’s an invention of the Military Hospital, and unfortunately our highest court has based its ruling on this invention," said Hugo Gutiérrez, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

In issuing their ruling, the justices appeared to forget that Spanish Judge Juan Guzmán, who has been pursuing the case since British officials returned the former dictator to Chile on humanitarian grounds in March 2000 (LP, March 13, 2000), had interrogated the former general and found him "extraordinarily normal" and "lucid."

In an official record of his interrogation of Pinochet in January 2001, Guzmán said, "Despite his physical limitations, advanced age and difficulty in getting around, he shows a normal understanding of questions and expresses himself clearly."

According to AFDD spokespersons, the case against Pinochet was "resolved politically a long time ago," as shown by the government’s "desperate efforts" to free the former dictator from house arrest in London.

Five months after his return to Chile in 2000, Pinochet was stripped of his immunity as a senator for life, a post established under the Constitution drafted in 1980, while he was in power.

"The suspension of the case against Pinochet in Chile must be attributed to the desire and actions of the government of Ricardo Lagos. It wouldn’t have happened if the government had stood firm and said that the greatest criminal in Chile’s history had to be tried," said Spanish lawyer Joan Garcés, who filed a complaint against Pinochet in Spain in 1996 for genocide, terrorism and torture, opening the case that led to the former dictator’s arrest in England.

The Supreme Court decision does not affect cases under way against five other defendants — Arellano Stark, retired Cols. Sergio Aredondo and Marcelo Moren Brito, retired Brig. Gen. Pedro Espinoza and retired Major Armando Fernández Larios.

Fernández Larios is living in Miami thanks to a deal struck with the US government in exchange for information about the 1976 car-bomb deaths in Washington, DC, of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his American assistant, Ronni Moffit. Fernández Larios was accused of participating in the murder.

Although the Supreme Court ruling theoretically applies only to the one case against Pinochet, it will probably be applied to the more than 200 other complaints pending against him, as well as any future cases in Chile or abroad.

Also pending is a ruling by the Santiago Court of Appeals on a request from Argentine Judge María Servini de Cubría for Pinochet to be stripped of immunity so that she can interrogate him. Pinochet has been accused of masterminding the 1974 murders in Buenos Aires of Gen. Carlos Prats, former commander of the Chilean Army, and his wife, Sofía Cuthbert.

—From Santiago, Pascale Bonnefoy


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