By Eduardo GallardoAssociated Press
January 11, 2006
An appeals court stripped Gen. Augusto Pinochet of his legal immunity Wednesday, a ruling that paved the way for the former dictator to stand trial on charges of responsibility for killing two bodyguards of the Marxist president he toppled in a bloody 1973 coup. The ruling allows the judge handling the case, Victor Montiglio, to indict the 90-year-old retired general for allegedly killing two bodyguards of Salvador Allende.
Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, enjoys immunity from prosecution as a former president. But he faces a host of charges of human rights abuses, tax evasion and corruption. Wednesday's ruling reopened one of the most notorious human rights cases involving Pinochet's dictatorship - the so-called Caravan of Death, in which 75 jailed dissidents were killed by a military party that toured the country in a helicopter in the weeks immediately after the coup.
The president of the Santiago Court of Appeals, Juan Escobar, said the justices voted 17-6 to remove Pinochet's immunity. But the same court on Monday upheld another panel's ruling that Pinochet could be freed on bail from the house arrest he has been under since Nov. 24 in a previous indictment in the killing or disappearance of nine dissidents. The courts have repeatedly lifted Pinochet's legal immunity in the past, has the law require people protected by such immunity to be stripped of it separately in each case before they can be charged. Wednesday's ruling can be appealed before the Supreme Court.
The Caravan of Death case had been closed and all charges against Pinochet dropped on health grounds. But a prosecution lawyer, Juan Gutierrez, discovered that two of the victims had not been included in the original process, and filed a new complaint. The two victims at the center of the new complaint were Wagner Salinas and Francisco Lara, members of Allende's security detail. Allende committed suicide in his presidential palace while it was under air and ground attack.
According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet, Salinas and Lara were arrested the same day of the coup, Sept. 11, 1973, and executed three weeks later by a military firing squad. In all, 46 Allende bodyguards were killed, some of them in combat with the soldiers that took the presidential palace. The Caravan of Death prompted the first attempt to try Pinochet. He was indicted by now-retired Judge Juan Guzman, but all charges were dropped after the Supreme Court ruled that his health prevented him from standing trial.
Pinochet has been diagnosed with mild dementia resulting from several strokes, diabetes and arthritis and he has a pacemaker. Nevertheless, the last tests by court appointed doctors indicated he is fit to stand trial. Pinochet has escaped trial four times due to health issues. His lawyer, Pablo Rodriguez, is using the same argument in appeals to block the still-pending cases - two of them on human rights violations.
Pinochet faces tax evasion charges related to secret overseas bank accounts. He has also been indicted for allegedly diverting $2 million in public fund to his private accounts while in power.
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