Court upholds Pinochet trial delay


Chile's Supreme Court yesterday rejected an appeal to overturn an order that prevented the arrest of Gen Augusto Pinochet (85). The move thwarts an attempt to bring the former dictator to trial quickly on charges of alleged kidnapping and murder during his 1973 to 1990 rule.

Mr Humberto Espejo, one of the five judges hearing the case, said the highest tribunal in the country voted 4-1 to throw out the appeal lodged by human rights lawyers.

That vote upheld a lower court's ruling on December 11th that an arrest warrant issued against Gen Pinochet was invalid because the retired general was not questioned prior to the order.

The verdict does not crush the hopes of human rights lawyers to win a trial of the general, who ruled Chile for 17 years after ousting socialist president Salvador Allende in a violent coup in 1973. But it will make any route to the courts to have Gen Pinochet stand trial longer.

Mr Carlos Meneses, a senior official of the Supreme Court, said the Supreme Court ruling also ordered Mr Juan Guzman, the crusading judge investigating 190 lawsuits against the former army chief, to question Gen Pinochet within 20 days.

Meanwhile, Gen Pinochet has to undergo psychological tests in Santiago's military hospital - checks required for all people over the age of 70 who face trial in Chile.

Gen Pinochet, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence, is revered by Chile's right wing and business elite because they believe his regime halted the country's slide toward Marxism. He could ultimately avoid trial if tests show he is mentally ill.

"This is a moment for peace and evaluation," Mr Fernando Barros, one of Gen Pinochet's legal advisers, said. "Judge Guzman's order for his arrest has been declared null and void."

Foes of the former commander in chief of the army lamented the verdict but vowed to continue fighting to see Gen Pinochet brought to trial.

"There is nothing now stopping him from being interrogated. Now he has all the possibilities at his disposal to be listened to," said Ms Carmen Hertz, a human rights lawyer, pointing to the order that gives Judge Guzman 20 days to question Gen Pinochet.

More than 3,000 people died or disappeared and are presumed dead under Gen Pinochet's regime, in which anti-left-wing witch-hunts were common. Tens of thousands more Chileans fled the country rather than live under a military dictatorship.