November 24, 2005

Pinochet under arrest, faces charges

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (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 hid 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.

Earlier, a court source told Reuters that the charges were
in three disappearances.

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

Israel said 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 more were tortured or exiled.

"But that doesn't mean there'll be a rapid conviction. His
health problems will probably get worse," Israel said.


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

Human rights lawyers say 119 leftists were taken prisoner
by Chile's secret police and killed in 1974 in the case. They
say the Pinochet regime planted fake news stories in 1975 in
Argentina and Brazil saying the dissidents had died fighting
among themselves.

When Judge Montiglio questioned Pinochet recently about the
Operation Colombo case, 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.

The deaths under Chile's military dictatorship were fewer
than in other Latin American countries like Guatemala and
Argentina, but Pinochet has become an international symbols of
the human rights abuses that marked the region's Cold War era.

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. The defense is expected to appeal the
indictments on health grounds.

Pinochet's lawyer said on Wednesday he would appeal the tax
fraud charges. The defense did not immediately comment on

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 convict
or, if not, to dismiss charges.

(additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara)