- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2001

SANTIAGO, Chile Gen. Augusto Pinochet cannot be tried on human rights charges because of his deteriorating health and mental condition, a divided court ruled today, effectively bringing the 85-year-old former dictator's legal troubles to an end.
The trial could theoretically resume if Mr. Pinochet's health improves, but that possibility is remote and even his staunchest opponents admitted that the general will never be held legally accountable for a military operation that killed scores of political prisoners shortly after he seized power in 1973.
"The ruling means that there is no hope now for scores of families that still expected that justice would be made," said Mireya Garcia, vice president of an organization of relatives of dissidents who disappeared after being arrested under Mr. Pinochet, who ruled Chile until 1990.
Hugo Gutierrez, one of the prosecutors, said the ruling "means that 11 years after democratic rule was restored, Chilean courts still have a long way to go to really make justice."
Mr. Pinochet's defense lawyer, Jose Eyzaguirre, lamented "that the ruling is based only on health grounds and not on legal considerations, because Gen. Pinochet is totally innocent."
But Mr. Pinochet's older son, also named Augusto, said the family reacted "with calm and satisfaction."
The 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the Santiago Court of Appeals to suspend the legal action apparently brings to an end an odyssey that began when Mr. Pinochet went to London in October 1998 for back surgery.
British authorities unexpectedly arrested him at the request of a Spanish judge and kept him under house arrest for 16 months before releasing him on health grounds.
Mr. Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000, but his immunity was lifted and he was forced to continue his legal battle in a country under civilian rule where the deep division over the former dictator were reflected in weeks of often violent demonstrations for and against him.
But after extensively citing medical reports on Pinochet, the three-judge panel concluded: "He is not in a state of mental capacity that would allow him to efficiently exercise the judicial guarantees that he must enjoy throughout the legal procedure in order to have a just trial."
Mr. Pinochet, who earlier this year was diagnosed with "moderate dementia," now suffers from diabetes and arthritis, has a pacemaker and has had at least three mild strokes since 1998, according to his doctors. And in recent days doctors also grew worried over Mr. Pinochet's heart condition, retired Gen. Luis Cortes, a close Pinochet associate, said today.
The former dictator spent six days in the hospital last week and underwent dental surgery and treatment for high blood pressure. He remains at home under a treatment doctors describe as similar to the one at the hospital.
But prosecutors have expressed doubts about his real condition.
"I honestly hope that our courts of justice will not soon be subject to international shame by a sudden recovery of Pinochet," lawyer Hiram Villagra said.
Prosecutors announced they would seek a reversal of the ruling, but that could happen only if they prove the judges made a legal or technical mistake.
The government would not comment on today's ruling. "Court rulings are to be respected, not to be commented on," President Ricardo Lagos said. "The government is not satisfied or unsatisfied." Chilean law exempts from penal responsibility only those pronounced mad or demented, but Pinochet's lawyers insisted that the retired general's deteriorated health prevents him from properly organizing his defense, thus depriving him of his constitutional right to a just trial.
"This is disappointing indeed but Pinochet will remain in history as having been spared from trial only because he is crazy," said Carmen Hertz, a prosecutor lawyer whose husband, journalist Carlos Berger, was one of the victims of the 1973 military operation.
But Mr. Pinochet can also have the charges dropped entirely by another panel in the same court that will open hearings in the coming days.
Despite the ruling, Mr. Pinochet's arrest and trial are considered significant in a world where it's getting harder for leaders accused of atrocities to avoid facing the charges in their own countries or elsewhere. The extradition of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to a U.N. tribunal is only the latest example.
Mr. Pinochet is charged in the "Caravan of Death," in which 75 political prisoners were killed shortly after the 1973 coup that ousted Marxist President Salvador Allende. Mr. Pinochet faces charges of covering up 18 kidnappings and 57 homicides.
The general said he was innocent of the charges and defended his authoritarian rule as a bulwark against communism. But despite his uncontested control of power, he proved unable to resist the Latin American trend toward civilian rule, losing an Oct. 5, 1988, referendum on a proposal to extend his rule until 1997.
The defeat forced him to call elections for Dec. 14, 1989, won by Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat backed by a center-left coalition.

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