by Gustavo Gonzalez
(IPS) SANTIAGO --
and opponents of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet clashed in downtown Santiago April 26 at the start of a hearing to determine whether the elderly senator-for-life can be tried in connection with human rights abuses.
The legal proceedings on the lifting of Pinochet's parliamentary immunity began in the Santiago Appeals Court, after the court's 22 judges rejected the petition by the retired general's lawyers that he be submitted to medical exams prior to the trial.
The defense attorneys and prosecution will continue to present their cases this week in the first phase of a legal process that could stretch out for one or two months.
"No one is nervous in today's Chile," asserted Pres. Ricardo Lagos, who refuted rumors of military unrest that began to circulate after army commander Ricardo Izurieta met with him unexpectedly late yesterday.
Lagos spoke after inaugurating a day of readings by prominent local personalities to mark the 50th anniversary of the publishing of "Canto General," a historic work by Chilean poet and Nobel Literature Prize-winner Pablo Neruda.
Pinochet and Neruda, the renowned communist poet who died in 1973, just a few days after the Sept. 11 coup d'etat that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende, symbolized once more today the deep divisions that have split Chilean society for over a quarter century.
start of the trial on the possible lifting of Pinochet's parliamentary immunity did not distract most Chileans from their day-to-day concerns, such as the match Wednesday between the national soccer team and the Peruvian team, in the qualifying rounds for the 2002 World Cup.
The passions for and against the 84-year-old retired general were played out around the Palace of Courts, where demonstrators slung not only insults but bottles and other objects at each other, despite the efforts of the Carabineros police to keep the two sides apart.
Authorities set up mobile barriers to separate human rights activists demanding that Pinochet be tried from the former dictator's supporters. The demonstrations were held a block apart.
However, clashes occurred in nearby streets, in a repeat of the incidents seen in London during the 503 days Pinochet spent under house arrest in Britain.
Some 10 individuals were arrested during the incidents, including the driver of a foreign ministry vehicle that crashed into a mobile barrier, knocking down and injuring three university students protesting against Pinochet.
Humorist Juan Carlos Melendez, known locally as "Palta," was also attacked by Pinochet supporters when he showed up dressed as the former dictator to promote his upcoming show.
An estimated 200 "Pinochetistas" gathered at the intersection of Compania and Bandera streets outside the Palace of the Courts in downtown Santiago. Not only did they beat Melendez but they also constantly harassed journalists posted around the area.
A block away, some 300 human rights activists gathered, mainly women belonging to the Group of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared and the Group of Relatives of Victims of Political Executions.
Pinochet's detractors waved their familiar placards showing photos of victims of the repression -- who totalled over 3,000, according to a 1991 government truth commission report -- as well as slogans calling for an end to the impunity enjoyed by Pinochet and demanding that he be brought to trial.
The lifting of the immunity from prosecution the former army chief enjoys as life senator was requested March 6 by Judge Juan Guzman, who is investigating 88 lawsuits filed against Pinochet since January 1998.
The request for the suspension of immunity was based, however, only on the first of the lawsuits, in connection with the kidnapping of 19 political prisoners, reportedly shot to death in October 1973 by a special military mission known as the "caravan of death," but whose bodies have never been found.
The files on which Judge Guzman based his request fill 10 volumes, of a total of 3,500 pages, which court reporter Soledad Melo is to sum up.
Pinochet's defense lawyers, headed by right-wing attorney Ricardo Rivadeneira, will then present their arguments, alleging that Pinochet was not connected with the murders committed by the "caravan of death."
The prosecutors, on the other hand, will argue that the head of the military mission, Gen. Sergio Arellano, was named the personal delegate of Pinochet, then-army chief and president of the military junta, who commissioned Arellano to "expedite" the legal proceedings against leftist political prisoners in several cities around the country.
As Pres. Lagos said, the proceedings that opened last week comprise a sort of "pretrial," since Pinochet can only be prosecuted for the murders committed by Arellano and his subordinates if his parliamentary immunity is suspended.
Eduardo Contreras, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, did not rule out the possibility that Pinochet's defense counsel would insist, once the respective sides have rested, that the former dictator be submitted to medical exams to establish whether he is physically and mentally fit to stand trial.
That and other legal wrangling would stretch out the current "pretrial" for over a month. And if the Appeals Court finally decides to lift the retired general's immunity and Pinochet's lawyers appeal to the Supreme Court, the whole process could take as long as two months, Contreras explained.
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