by Gustavo Gonzalez
(IPS) -- A Chilean appeals court stripped former dictator Augusto Pinochet of immunity Tuesday, allowing him to be prosecuted for tax fraud in connection with secret bank accounts uncovered earlier in the United States.
But at the same time, a panel of judges from the same court ruled that Pinochet is mentally unfit to stand trial in connection with forced disappearances carried out in the framework of Operation Condor.
Operation Condor was a coordinated plan among the military governments that ruled Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at tracking down, capturing and eliminating left-wing opponents.
The 25-member Santiago appeals court voted to lift the special immunity Pinochet enjoys as a former leader, thus paving the way for him to be tried for tax evasion, using false passports, and illegally hiding money from Spanish courts that are investigating him.
Carmen Hertz, one of the lawyers who filed the charges against Pinochet, told IPS that Judge Sergio Munoz can now prosecute the former dictator and issue a warrant for his arrest.
The case involves secret accounts discovered in the Washington-based Riggs Bank and other financial institutions, that hold an estimated 17 million dollars.
While human rights groups were still celebrating the tax evasion ruling, announced Tuesday morning, they suffered the impact of the verdict handed down in the early afternoon by the appeals court panel.
The three judges ruled that the 89-year-old former dictator is too senile to defend himself properly in the case involving nine disappearances and one murder committed under Operation Condor, which means his right to due legal process would be violated.
Invoking the same argument, the Supreme Court let him off the hook in July 2002 in a case dealing with 57 murders and 18 disappearances carried out by a special helicopter-borne army mission, the "caravan of death," created to "expedite" the "trials" and executions of political prisoners around the country in October 1973.
"It seems that the judges find it unacceptable for Pinochet to be a thief, but they don't mind if he's a murderer. So, millions of dollars are worth much more than the blood of thousands of Chileans who fell victim to Operation Condor," said lawyer Eduardo Contreras.
Pinochet thus appears set to escape trial for crimes against humanity for the third time, on the basis of his supposed senility.
Last March, the Supreme Court also dismissed charges against him on those grounds, in the case involving the 1974 assassination of General Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires.
But last January, the Supreme Court itself upheld a May 2004 appeals court ruling allowing the former dictator to be tried in the Operation Condor case.
Under Chilean law, a separate request for lifting immunity from prosecution is needed in each individual case.
The decision to remove immunity merely allows the courts to go ahead with prosecution in that specific case, after the magistrates decide that there are merits for an investigation by a prosecuting judge.
With the senility argument, Pinochet has evaded investigation of his responsibility for the caravan of death and the murder of Prats (Pinochet's predecessor as army chief), and now it looks like something similar will happen with regard to the role he played in the creation of Operation Condor.
Contreras, who represents the families of the victims of Operation Condor, described the three-judge panel's ruling as "extremely grave."
The lawyer, who also represents victims' relatives in the failed caravan of death case, is likely to appeal the senility verdict to the Supreme Court.
In August 2004, an investigation by a U.S. Senate commission found secret accounts belonging to dictators from Africa and Latin America, including Pinochet, in the Riggs Bank.
The discovery dealt a severe blow to the former dictator's image as an incorruptible soldier, which was maintained at all cost during his 1973-1990 de facto regime.
For example, journalist Monica Gonzalez was imprisoned after reporting in the early 1980s that Pinochet had used public funds to purchase property.
Hertz said the decision to remove Pinochet's immunity will likely be upheld by the Supreme Court, if the ex-dictator's defense attorneys decide to appeal the case, because the evidence that he committed tax fraud, used false documents and illegally concealed his accounts "is overwhelming."
The minister secretary general of government, Osvaldo Puccio, said the tax evasion ruling "once more demonstrated that no one is above the law in Chile."
"In a democracy, all citizens have the same rights and duties," said Puccio, President Ricardo Lagos's spokesman.
"The ruling shows that sooner or later, everyone is held accountable for their actions," said former defense minister Michelle Bachelet, the ruling center-left coalition's presidential candidate for the Dec. 11 elections, and the front-runner in the polls.
Bachelet, who like Lagos belongs to the co-governing Socialist Party, is the daughter of air force General Alberto Bachelet, who remained loyal to the constitution and was tortured to death as a political prisoner after the 1973 coup d'etat led by Pinochet that overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende (1970-1973).
In Chile "we are all equal before the law, and justice has to be served, no matter which case we're talking about," said Joaquin Lavin, presidential candidate of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI), who used to be an apologist for Pinochet.
Sebastian Pinera, the candidate of the free-market rightist National Renovation Party, said "we live in a state of law, to which we must all submit ourselves, from the most powerful to the most humble. That's how democracy works."
June 7, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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