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Los Angeles Times, 27.12.00,

Pinochet Must Have Mental Tests Before Any Interrogation, Court Rules.
Latin America: The decision angers victims of the 1973-90 regime, who had anticipated a moment of truth.
By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO, Chile -- In a surprise decision that could help former dictator Augusto Pinochet elude trial, Chile's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the retired general must undergo mental tests before he is interrogated by a judge seeking to indict him on murder and kidnapping charges.

The court issued the ruling just as Chileans prepared for a long-awaited showdown: Today, the special magistrate had been scheduled to question Pinochet, 85, about alleged crimes during his 17-year military regime. The interrogation would have been a moment of truth in the case, a symbolic breakthrough after decades in which Pinochet was considered untouchable.

But Tuesday, a five-judge panel of the high court delayed the interrogation, the legal prerequisite for an indictment, until at least Jan. 9 pending psychological and neurological tests required for elderly defendants.

Startled lawyers for victims of the military regime said the ruling--a response to a last-minute motion by the defense--appeared to prepare the legal framework for a political solution that would block an indictment.

"This decision goes against the law," said Carmen Hertz, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "This is disturbing. It would seem that the intent is to bring the case to an end for health reasons."

Pinochet won't have to stand trial if the medical exams produce a diagnosis of insanity or dementia. In March, after detaining him for 17 months, British authorities released Pinochet on grounds of ill health rather than conduct extradition proceedings requested by a Spanish judge. The former dictator has had three mild strokes, has diabetes and wears a pacemaker.

The defense clearly hopes that the tests will prevent questioning by Judge Juan Guzman, who had planned to interrogate the defendant at home. Such humiliation on Chilean soil could have been the worst punishment Pinochet received, given his age, frail health and this nation's ponderous court system.

The psychological tests will provide "clear, definitive and unavoidable scientific precedent regarding Pinochet's situation and whether his health situation allows him to confront an interrogation," said Pablo Rodriguez, who leads Pinochet's defense team.

A terse Guzman told journalists Tuesday, "Nothing surprises me."

Although human rights lawyers conceded that Guzman had suffered a potentially serious setback, they interpreted the ruling as allowing for an interrogation after the psychological tests. The tests will take place in a military hospital and are expected to last four or five days. It's not clear when results would be ready, and the speed of the procedures is likely to provoke a legal fight.

Earlier this month, Guzman indicted Pinochet on charges connected to a helicopter-borne army death squad that is accused of killing at least 72 people in 1973, the year the dictator seized power. The Supreme Court quashed the indictment last week but also gave Guzman another chance by approving a fast-track interrogation.

Tuesday's suspension of the interrogation led to yet another turn in the legal maze and intersected with oblique political developments, according to some analysts. Chile's democracy is growing stronger, but the Pinochet case still inspires intense--if nonviolent--conflict. Both sides have accused the government of Socialist President Ricardo Lagos of manipulating the justice system.

Hernan Montealegre, a prominent lawyer, asserted that the court's latest decision was politically motivated.

Montealegre noted that Jan. 6 marks a political deadline: the date by which a round table of human rights activists and military chiefs plans to conclude an investigation into the estimated 1,000 missing victims of the dictatorship.

He accused the Lagos government of secretly pushing the Supreme Court to block action against Pinochet out of fear that the armed forces would provide little new information to the panel if the retired general was under indictment. Lagos has staked much of his prestige on the findings of the round table.

Tuesday's ruling was "not just a setback, it's an illegal decision," Montealegre said. "I think the Supreme Court lost credibility today."

Lagos insists that the courts are independent. He stuck to his policy Tuesday of refraining from comment on the Pinochet case. But he also announced that he will convene a meeting next week of the National Security Council, a dictatorship-era institution that gives the armed forces special influence. Military chiefs had been pressing for the meeting for weeks in hopes of discussing their anger at the advance of the case against Pinochet.

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