By LARRY ROHTER DEC. 14, 2004
BUENOS AIRES, Dec. 13 -A Chilean judge ruled Monday that Gen. Augusto Pinochet was competent to stand trial for human rights abuses that occurred during his nearly 17 years as Chile’s dictator and immediately charged him with nine counts of kidnapping and one of murder.
Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia also ordered that General Pinochet, 89, be placed under house arrest and confined to his mansion on the outskirts of Santiago, the Chilean capital. The former dictator’s lawyer, Pablo Rodríguez, accused the judge of trampling on the general’s human rights and announced that he would appeal the decision. Later Monday, General Pinochet’s defense team filed an injunction with the Santiago Court of Appeals, effectively freezing the house arrest until the court rules on it, according to Chilean news accounts..
“Pinochet has been declared mentally fit to undergo criminal investigation in Chile in all of its stages,” Judge Guzmán told reporters waiting for the decision at a downtown court. That includes “depositions and face-to-face interrogations” about his role as what the judge described as “the perpetrator of crimes” against political opponents in the 1970’s while head of state.
All 10 charges stem from an international kidnapping and murder alliance called Operation Condor, one of whose victims in another case was Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean foreign minister who was assassinated in Washington.
The president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, who has argued that the various judicial proceedings must be allowed to run their course without interference from the executive branch, had no immediate comment on the ruling. But Clara Szczaranski, president of Chile’s State Defense Council, which oversees the conduct of government officials, welcomed the judgment, saying that “with such serious charges against him, the country needs a thorough investigation to prove what actually happened and what his responsibility was.”
The decision on Monday reversed earlier court rulings that have allowed General Pinochet to avoid facing any charges stemming from human rights abuses during his rule, from 1973 to 1990. In that time, an estimated 4,000 political opponents were killed by state security, military and police forces, many after being kidnapped, and thousands more were jailed, tortured or driven into exile.
“This time is different,” said Viviana Díaz, a leader of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared. “Guzmán probably feels he is supported by other judges who are also advancing in human rights investigations and by the Supreme Court.”
Last month, the Supreme Court confirmed sentences against rights violators in the military rather than allow an amnesty law to be applied.
The indictment that Judge Guzmán announced Monday arises from Operation Condor, a joint intelligence program set up by South America’s right-wing military dictatorships in the mid-1970’s, primarily to kidnap and murder political dissidents from member countries who had gone into exile in other participating countries. Besides Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay also took part.
Operation Condor even reached into the United States in what Peter Kornbluh, author of “The Pinochet File,” called the first act of “state-sponsored international terrorism” in the American capital. In September 1976, Mr. Letelier and an American associate , Ronni Karpen Moffitt, were killed by a bomb as their car approached the Chilean Embassy. Operatives of Chile’s military intelligence agency and Cuban exiles were later implicated.
“If there were ever a case that shows that a head of state had to be involved in these atrocities, it is Condor,” said John Dinges, the author of “The Condor Years” and one of the experts Judge Guzmán consulted. “I have evidence that Pinochet was actually at the meeting when Condor was formed, and it is impossible to believe that subordinates would create something as elaborate as Condor without the explicit approval of the head of state.”
Relatives of victims of Operation Condor endorsed the court action. Jenny Stoulman of Santiago, whose parents disappeared after disembarking from a plane here in Argentina in 1977, praised Judge Guzmán for being “persistent, serious and dedicated” despite the failure of previous efforts in Chile to hold General Pinochet accountable for human rights abuses.
“So many years have gone by without any real information about what happened to our parents,” Ms. Stoulman said. “Now we have hope that some truth will come to light, though I know it will be a slow process.”
The ruling is the latest in a series of setbacks for General Pinochet. In July, a United States Senate committee released documents indicating that he had secretly deposited as much as $8 million in accounts at Riggs Bank in Washington, a disclosure that has since prompted formal investigations by Chile’s Congress, judiciary and tax service that are expected to lead to new criminal charges.
In addition, this month an appeals court stripped General Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution in the investigation of the assassination of Gen. Carlos Prats, one of his predecessors as army commander. General Prats, who opposed the coup against President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, which brought General Pinochet to power, and his wife were forced into exile in Argentina. They were killed here in 1974 by a car bomb.
This is the second time in Chile that General Pinochet has been indicted for human rights abuses occurring during his military dictatorship. In 2001, he was charged in connection with the so-called Caravan of Death, a military operation that took place shortly after he seized power and that resulted in the deaths or disappearances of some 75 people.
That decision, however, was appealed to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled that the former dictator was mentally and physically unfit to stand trial. Doctors who were asked to examine him found that he suffered from what they called “mild dementia,” or senility, as well as diabetes and a heart ailment.
When the Operation Condor charges emerged, however, Judge Guzmán ordered another battery of medical tests and also interviewed General Pinochet himself, in late September. In explaining his ruling to reporters, Judge Guzmán said General Pinochet’s “coherence, his comprehension of the questions made to him, and his answers” both when the two men met and in other appearances in public all influenced the decision.
Sebastian Brett, the Chile representative for Human Rights Watch, said Judge Guzmán had been “extremely thorough and detailed in sifting through the medical evidence.” But he added that higher courts “may well reach a different conclusion” about a trial, especially since a new penal code takes effect next year that is “much more explicit in guaranteeing due process rights and allowing defense lawyers to challenge a trial on those grounds.”
Judge Guzmán also said an interview General Pinochet gave last year to a Spanish-language television network in the United States was “one of the elements I took into consideration.” In that broadcast, General Pinochet appeared lucid and defiant, arguing that “everything I did, I would do again.”
“Who am I supposed to ask for forgiveness?” he said. “They are the ones who have to ask me for forgiveness, them, the Marxists.”
Source: The New York Times