January 11, 2006

Court upholds bail for Pinochet in rights case

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - A court upheld bail for former
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on Wednesday after seven
weeks of house arrest in one human rights case, but stripped
him of immunity from prosecution in another.

A three-judge panel of the Santiago Appeals Court affirmed
an earlier ruling by Judge Victor Montiglio, who said Pinochet
should be released from house arrest, and set bail at $19,000.

Montiglio is investigating and prosecuting the case known
as Operation Colombo, in which 119 leftists, many from an armed
revolutionary group, disappeared in 1974 and 1975, near the
beginning of Pinochet's 17-year rule.

Pinochet's regime is also accused of covering up the deaths
with false news reports saying members of the Revolutionary
Leftist Movement died in internal clashes.

Pinochet is charged with kidnapping nine Operation Colombo
victims. The kidnapping charge is used in cases where people
disappeared after being taken into custody and are presumed
dead but whose bodies have never been found.

The full 23-member Santiago Appeals Court also stripped
Pinochet of immunity -- a privilege of former presidents -- so
that he can be charged with crimes related to two victims in
the case known as the Caravan of Death.

It refers to a military mission, just after the September
11, 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power, to
execute dozens of opponents in cities in northern and southern

The Supreme Court threw out the Caravan of Death case in
2002, saying Pinochet was too ill to face charges, but a
prosecuting judge now argues that ruling does not apply to two
of the victims.

The courts decide on Pinochet's immunity from prosecution
on a case-by-case basis.

Pinochet, 90, ran Chile from 1973-1990, an era in which an
estimated 3,000 people died in political violence and some
28,000 people were tortured.

While many former military officers and secret police have
been convicted of human rights crimes, Pinochet has yet to face
trial because the Supreme Court has agreed with the defense
that his mild dementia, caused by frequent mini-strokes related
to diabetes, makes him too ill to defend himself.

An icon of the Cold War who says he is proud of purging his
country of communism, Pinochet is now politically sidelined --
even loyal supporters abandoned him after he was charged last
year with evading taxes on an estimated $27 million hidden in
off-shore bank accounts.

(Additional reporting by Erik Lopez)