updated 8/26/2004 4:16:40 PM ET 2004-08-26T20:16:40

Chile’s Supreme Court stripped Gen. Augusto Pinochet of immunity from prosecution Thursday, paving the way for possible trial of the former dictator on charges of human rights abuses.

The court voted 9-8 to lift the immunity the 88-year-old Pinochet enjoys as a former president, a court spokesman said.

The decision removes a major legal hurdle for prosecutors seeking to bring Pinochet to justice, adding to his legal woes after Chilean investigators recently opened a probe into multimillion dollar bank accounts in the United States.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought on behalf of victims of “Operation Condor,” which they say was a coordinated plan of repression against opponents by the military dictatorships that ruled South American nation in the 1970s and ’80s.

Although Pinochet has never been indicted in connection with “Operation Condor,” government spokesman Francisco Vidal signaled the ruling clears the way for a possible investigation.

“Nobody is above the law,” Vidal said. He did not elaborate on what many observers predict would be a protracted legal battle.

The Supreme Court had ruled in the past that Pinochet is physically and mentally unfit to stand trial. The Supreme Court spokesman, Juan Cristobal Mera, did not immediately release details of the court’s opinion.

Lawyers had presented new evidence suggesting Pinochet was capable of withstanding trial. The evidence included a 2003 televised interview in which he calmly answered questions about his rule.

Pinochet spokesman retired Gen. Guillermo Garin expressed surprise at the ruling.

“This does come as bit of a surprise since the health of the ex-president has not changed at all,” he said, adding that the general’s health problems “are progressing and irreversible.”

A 2002 report by court-appointed doctors stated that Pinochet has a mild case of dementia. He uses a pacemaker, suffers from diabetes and arthritis, and has had at least three mild strokes since 1998.

In November 2003, Pinochet appeared in an interview with a Miami-based Spanish language television station, saying he views himself as a “good angel” and blaming the abuses of his regime on subordinates.

Pinochet took power in a bloody September 1973 coup that toppled elected leftist president Salvador Allende. Family and followers of Allende said he committed suicide in his presidential palace in flames, after it had come under attack.

Pinochet went on to rule until 1990 and a report by the civilian government that succeeded him said 3,197 people died or disappeared during his 17-year regime.

Lorena Pizarro, who heads an association for relatives of victims of repression under Pinochet’s dictatorship, said prosecutors now had to move quickly to bring him to trial.

“Pinochet has to be tried!” she said. “He must pay for all the crimes for which he is responsible. This has to be the window of opportunity bring human rights violators to justice.”

A group of about 100 Pinochet opponents cheered when the court’s decision was announced in Santiago, where the protesters had kept up a courthouse vigil beside police barricades this week.

Other legal problems now confront Pinochet.

He recently came under scrutiny after authorities said a U.S. investigation raised suspicions he kept accounts at the Washington-based Riggs Bank with deposits ranging from $4 million to $8 million.

Earlier this month, Pinochet answered questions during an appearance before a judge investigating the source of the money.

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