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The Financial Times, 7.4.00

Court to hear Pinochet illness case. By Mark Mulligan in Santiago

Chilean judges are expected next week to consider arguments by lawyers for Augusto Pinochet that the former dictator is too ill to be tried for alleged human rights abuses during his 17-year dictatorship.

The Court of Appeals will consider submissions by the defence that the retired general's deteriorating mental health had rendered him incapable of following trial proceedings.

Thursday marks the beginning of a legal battle that is likely to take years, and that some observers say could outlive the 84-year-old general.

General Pinochet returned to Chile a month ago after 16 months under house arrest in the UK, pending an extradition request from Spain. Jack Straw, UK interior minister, set him free because of concerns for his failing health.

The former dictator faces 77 allegations related to his role in the kidnap and disappearance of scores of political prisoners in the months after his seizure of power in 1973.

Five former military chiefs have already been charged in relation to the so-called "Caravan of Death", when they swept the country's detention centres in helicopters, torturing and executing alleged opponents of the military regime.

Juan Guzmán, the special magistrate investigating the disappearances, has successfully circumvented the country's 1973-78 amnesty for military executors and torturers by arguing that the cases are still open.

Lawyers acting for the victims have petitioned the Court of Appeals to have Gen Pinochet's senatorial privilege stripped so he can be charged along with his former officers.

The Chilean constitution of 1980 gives former presidents the right to sit in the Senate, where they enjoy a type of immunity to prosecution designed to protect them from nuisance lawsuits brought with political motives.

The constitution was recently amended to allow the so-called senators for life to resign from the senate without forfeiting this privilege, or their monthly allowance.

Despite protests over the amendment from human rights groups and other opponents of Gen Pinochet, it should make little difference in the case of the former dictator, who instantly loses the privilege if the courts decide he has serious charges to answer.

Lawyers familiar with the Caravan of Death cases expect the court to reject today's mental health arguments, and proceed next week with hearings to decide whether the allegations are serious enough to warrant removing Gen Pinochet's privilege.

The hearings, which will be televised live to Chileans and around the world, are scheduled to run over three days starting on April 19.

Thursday's developments come as US prosecutors and FBI agents in Chile pursue their own case against the alleged authors of the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a minister in the Allende government, whose car was blown up in Washington in 1976. He and an assistant were killed in what marked a turning point in relations between Chile and the US, which had covertly helped bring Gen Pinochet to power.

Two Chilean officers were jailed in Chile for ordering the attack, although there are indications now that at least one of them is prepared to provide evidence of Gen Pinochet's role. One of them has also been charged in the Caravan of Death cases.

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