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Chile's high court rejects appeal, rules Pinochet can stand trial

SANTIAGO, Chile—Chile's highest court ruled Tuesday that ex-president Augusto Pinochet can stand trial on kidnapping and murder charges despite his advanced age, boosting hopes among his detractors for a high-profile human-rights trial.

In a 3-2 vote, the Supreme Tribunal rejected an appeal by Pinochet's lawyers, who argued that Pinochet, 89, could not face charges because he had been ruled mentally unfit for trial in 2002. The court said the 2002 ruling had no bearing on the legality of the current charges and that there was enough evidence to justify a trial.

Still pending, however, is a separate appeal based on the general's mental fitness. His lawyers have argued that he suffers from age-related dementia and can't properly defend himself. The court hasn't said when it will rule on that specific issue.

Wheelchair bound and diabetic, Pinochet no longer cuts the fearsome image, in sunglasses and Prussian-style military uniform, that he did after seizing power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody U.S.-backed coup. Official reports say 3,198 were killed in political violence during his 17 years in power and more than 27,000 people were tortured.

But the court's endorsement of the legal underpinning for the one murder and nine kidnapping charges against him heartened those who have long sought his prosecution.

Eduardo Contreras, a human-rights lawyer involved in several cases against Pinochet, said attorneys would now push to have Pinochet booked and fingerprinted "like any delinquent." Pinochet was spared the indignity in 2002, when similar charges were brought against him, only to be thrown out when the Supreme Tribunal ruled that Pinochet's mental condition was too deteriorated to try him.

"After 30 years, finally justice is beginning to be served," said Miriam Tamayo outside the courtroom.

Tamayo's brother Manuel Jesus disappeared in March 1976 in Mendoza, Argentina, allegedly the victim of a South America-wide pact among military governments in the 1970s to pool intelligence to capture, torture or kill their political opponents throughout the region.

That agreement, known as Operation Condor, was the subject of a probe by investigative Judge Juan Guzman that led to the charges against Pinochet.

Regardless of what the court eventually rules regarding Pinochet's mental capacity, Tuesday's court ruling insures that Guzman's probe of Operation Condor will continue. Several officials from the Pinochet regime are facing charges in connection with the Operation Condor probe.

The Supreme Tribunal's ruling came after more than two years of legal maneuvering once the court ruled that Pinochet's dementia was too severe for him to be tried.

Guzman reopened the case against Pinochet after the ex-president appeared in a television interview broadcast in Miami showing clear control of his mental faculties. Then, earlier this year, a judge looking into Pinochet's undeclared millions discovered that the ex-dictator still managed his secret accounts.

The charges affected by Tuesday's ruling are not the only cases against Pinochet proceeding through the Chilean legal system.

Pinochet also faces potential trial for the 1974 killing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, of his predecessor as head of the army, Gen. Carlos Prats. That case is advancing through the courts rapidly but also hangs on the question of Pinochet's mental health.

Chilean tax authorities and another investigative judge are also looking into at least $12 million in undeclared money that Pinochet hid in offshore accounts managed by Riggs Bank of Washington, D.C.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Hughes reported from Santiago, Hall from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Augusto Pinochet

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