Chilean judges on Friday re-opened a door that could lead to prosecution on rights abuse charges of former dictator Augusto Pinochet even though he had been deemed mentally unfit to stand trial due to age-related dementia.
The Santiago Court of Appeals accepted last Friday a petition seeking the lifting of the 88-year-old Pinochet's immunity from prosecution in a case involving the adduction and disappearance of nine people during his 1973-1990 rule.
The 14-9 decision to lift Pinochet's immunity was announced by lead Judge Juan Gonzalez, who said he and his 22 colleagues ruled on the matter after considering arguments made by prosecution and defense attorneys earlier this month.
This latest attempt to hold the ex-autocrat legally accountable for rights abuses committed under his regime comes in connection with a probe into "Operation Condor," a coordinated effort by Southern Cone dictatorships to hunt down and exterminate leftists in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Since 1998, Judge Juan Guzman has been investigating the disappearances of more than a hundred Chileans who were detained in neighboring countries during the 1970s.
As a former president, Pinochet enjoys lifetime immunity from prosecution. The judges' decision Friday signifies a change in the stance of the Court of Appeals, which twice rejected similar petitions on the basis of the Supreme Court ruling finding that Pinochet's incurable age-related dementia made him unfit to stand trial.
That mental condition supposedly was the result of at least two slight strokes suffered in recent years by the former strongman, who also is diabetic and has heart problems. Friday's ruling caused a stir in the courts and euphoria among families of the victims of Pinochet's dictatorship.
On July 1, 2002, the Supreme Court upheld a finding by the Santiago Court of Appeals that absolved Pinochet - on grounds of "dementia" - of responsibility in other illegal detentions that resulted in the detainees' summary execution.
Sources inside the Palace of Justice say the appeals court's change in position was based on an interview the former dictator gave a Miami television station last year. On that occasion, plaintiff's attorneys argued before the panel of judges, Pinochet demonstrated "evident lucidity" and responded to questions for more than an hour.
The ruling lifting the former dictator's immunity is subject to appeal before the Supreme Court.
The Pinochet regime is blamed for the killing of some 3,000 real or imagined opponents, most of them leftists. The bodies of some 1,000 have never been found, having been disposed of in ways designed to preclude their discovery, including dumping from air force planes into the Pacific.
The 2002 Supreme Court ruling has protected the general since then in other cases, including attempts to strip Pinochet's immunity to prosecute him for the murder of former army chief Carlos Prats, killed in Argentina in 1974, and for the killings in 1976 of leaders of the Chilean Communist Party.
"We have received very good news. The appeal was accepted to strip the immunity of the dictator who was responsible for crimes committed in this country for 17 years," said Lorena Pizarro, president of the Association of Families of the Disappeared Detainees, after announcement of Friday's ruling.
"We are happy, but on our guard. The dictator has to go to jail, the dictator has to pay for all the crimes he committed," Pizarro added.