October 19, 2005

Chile court strips Pinochet immunity in tax case

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chile's Supreme Court stripped
former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from
prosecution on Wednesday so he can face charges of tax fraud
involving an estimated $27 million in offshore accounts, a
court source told Reuters.

The decision upholds a lower court ruling, opening the way
for the retired general to be indicted for tax evasion.

Pinochet, who is 89 and ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 after
a military coup, has been stripped of his presidential immunity
from prosecution in a handful of human rights cases but has not
had to face the charges because his lawyers have successfully
argued he was too ill for a criminal trial.

The defense team was expected to use the same tactic after
Wednesday's ruling. Pinochet has heart problems and mild
dementia caused by frequent mini strokes related to diabetes.

The bank accounts have damaged Pinochet's reputation
domestically. The left has long accused him of being ultimately
responsible for thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of
tortures of leftists that occurred during his regime. But many
Chileans had supported him, partially because he was seen as a
clean leader in financial matters while so many other Latin
American presidents and dictators have been corrupt.

Chilean courts have been trying for five years to bring
Pinochet to trial in several human rights cases, but the focus
of investigations shifted last year when it emerged that he hid
millions of dollars under false names.

A judge investigating the accounts also asked the courts on
Tuesday to strip Pinochet's immunity so that he can be indicted
for embezzlement. Immunity is decided separately for each case.

Prosecutors say Pinochet and his family stashed millions of
dollars in more than 100 bank accounts outside of Chile. At
least some of the money came from kickbacks from European
weapons manufacturers, prosecutors have said.

The Pinochet accounts had repercussions for at least two
banks so far.

Washington, D.C.-based Riggs Bank pleaded guilty to a
criminal violation of the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act, an
anti-money-laundering law, and agreed to pay $16 million for
failing to report suspicious activity in Pinochet's accounts.
Riggs was subsequently acquired by another bank.

And the New York and Miami branches of Banco de Chile,
Chile's No. 2 bank, were fined $3 million for inadequate
anti-money laundering programs.

Pinochet's wife and youngest son have both been indicted as
accomplices in tax evasion. They are accused of using false
documents and passports to help move the money among the

Pinochet's wife, Lucia Hiriart, was briefly detained, and
his son Marco Antonio Pinochet was jailed for a few weeks in
August until he was released on bail.

Pinochet underwent medical examinations on Tuesday to
determine whether he was healthy enough to be tried for
responsibility in the deaths of dozens of leftists in 1975, in
a case known as Operation Colombo. The Supreme Court previously
stripped him of immunity in that case.