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Chile’s Pinochet is again under house arrest

One day before his 90th birthday, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was under house arrest on Thursday and facing tax fraud and human rights charges in his toughest legal situation yet.
/ Source: Reuters

One day before his 90th birthday, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was under house arrest on Thursday and facing tax fraud and human rights charges in his toughest legal situation yet.

On Wednesday, Pinochet was placed under house arrest and charged with tax fraud, forging passports and documents, and incomplete reporting of his assets in a case involving an estimated $27 million hidden in foreign bank accounts.

Pinochet was about to pay bail in the tax fraud case on Thursday when a separate judge put him back under house arrest and charged him in seven disappearances that are part of a 1974 human rights case known as Operation Colombo.

Judge Victor Montiglio's ruling said Pinochet should face trial in seven "permanent kidnappings," the term Chile's legal system uses for people who were arrested by state forces and are presumed dead but whose bodies were never found.

Montiglio did not set bail for Pinochet, whose family is planning a birthday party for him at his Santiago home on Friday.

"Without a doubt, this is the worst birthday he could have from a judicial standpoint," political scientist Ricardo Israel said. "This is by far the most delicate situation he's gone through."

The bank accounts case has moved much more rapidly than previous cases against Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973-1990, an era when 3,000 people died in political violence and tens of thousands were tortured or exiled.

Two other cases thrown out
Two previous human rights cases that led to formal charges against Pinochet were thrown out by the courts, which ruled his mild dementia, caused by frequent mini-strokes, made him unfit to face trial.

Human rights lawyers say 119 leftists, including members of the armed Revolutionary Leftist Movement, were taken prisoner by Chile's secret police and killed in 1974 in Operation Colombo.

They say the Pinochet regime planted fake news stories in 1975 saying the dissidents died fighting among themselves.

When Judge Montiglio questioned Pinochet recently about thecase, Pinochet said he regrets losses that people suffered during his rule but said he did not believe he had had gone too far in his fight against Communism and God would pardon him if he did.

Pinochet, who led a 1973 military coup that launched his 17-year dictatorship, lost his immunity from prosecution in Operation Colombo in September.

Sebastian Brett, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Pinochet is also close to losing his immunity in another case involving torture of Communist and Socialist Party leaders.

"For all of us who have been struggling over all these years to finally get Pinochet into court, this is a huge advance," Brett said.

Pinochet, sidelined from Chilean politics especially after the bank accounts scandal destroyed his remaining political loyalty, recently underwent new medical exams to see whether he was well enough to face a criminal process.

Although the judges in both cases found Pinochet fit to face prosecution they did not reject previous findings that he suffers mild dementia.

"He will have some relapse or be taken into military hospital and at some moment his lawyers will put in an appeal for the case to be closed down on medical grounds," Brett said.

In the past, Pinochet's medical crises have coincided with court proceedings.

Pinochet's lawyer said on Wednesday he would appeal the tax fraud charges.

The defense did not immediately comment on Thursday.

If the cases move forward, Pinochet will be tried under Chile's old justice system, without open courtroom hearings.

Instead, the judges will continue to gather evidence and question witnesses until they have enough evidence to convictor, if not, to dismiss charges.