The Supreme Court of Chile yesterday stripped Augusto Pinochet, the country's former military dictator, of his immunity from prosecution - opening the way for him to be charged with human rights abuses and the alleged death and disappearance of more than 3,000 people, reports Independent. The court in Santiago, the capital, voted 9-8 to lift the immunity protecting the former president, overruling its own previous decisions that the 88-year-old was too physically and mentally ill to face prosecution. Two years ago, court-appointed doctors determined that General Pinochet had a mild case of dementia, used a pacemaker and suffered from diabetes and arthritis. He has had at least three mild strokes since 1998. Human rights activists yesterday applauded the ruling. Neil Durkin of Amnesty International said: "We absolutely welcome this decision. It is long overdue as far as we are concerned. This is the first real opportunity to ensure that those who commit human rights abuses are [brought] to justice." According to CBS News, a court stripped Gen. Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution Friday, paving the way for the trial of the former Chilean dictator on human rights charges. The court voted 14-9 to lift the immunity that the 88-year-old Pinochet enjoys as former president, a court clerk said. The decision may still be appealed before the Supreme Court, which has repeatedly ruled in the past that Pinochet is physically and mentally unfit to stand trial. A 2002 report by court-appointed doctors stated that Pinochet has a mild case of dementia. He has a pacemaker, suffers from diabetes and arthritis, and has had at least three mild strokes since 1998. The court did not elaborate on the basis for the ruling, which will be revealed within two or three weeks after one of the justices writes it. Human rights lawyers have sued Pinochet in connection with the deaths of several Chileans in the so-called "Operation Condor," a repression plan implemented by the military dictatorships that ruled South America's southern nations in the 1970s and 1980s. Prosecution lawyer Francisco Bravo that the decision came as a surprise, considering the previous Supreme Court rulings. "We receive this with deep surprise but also with deep pride," Bravo said. "We stress that what was at stake today was not Pinochet's health, but the principle of equality before the law." Pinochet's lawyers did not immediately comment. Pinochet was not required to appear before the court. The Chilean Supreme Court's decision to deny Augusto Pinochet immunity from prosecution for past human rights violations is an important victory for accountability, Human Rights Watch said today. The court decided by a narrow 9-8 vote to uphold a lower court's ruling that the former dictator could be prosecuted for abuses committed in the 1970s. On May 28 the Santiago Appeals Court ruled that Pinochet be stripped of his immunity to face trial for kidnapping, illegal association and torture. The case was brought by relatives of 20 victims of "Operation Condor," a joint operation of the military regimes of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay in the 1970s that entailed collaborating to "disappear" dissidents, as well as to kidnap and smuggle them to their home countries for torture, interrogation and imprisonment. Pinochet had already been stripped of his immunity in 2000 to face trial for the murder of 57 political prisoners and the "disappearance" of 18 others after the 1973 military coup (the "Caravan of Death" case). However, that decision applied to that particular case, and in July 2002 the Supreme Court halted the trial, claiming that medical tests showed that Pinochet, now 88, was suffering from irreversible and progressive mental deterioration. The Supreme Court cited this verdict when it twice overruled attempts by lawyers acting for Pinochet's victims to have his immunity removed to face trial in other cases. The first occasion, in December 2002, involved the murder of General Carlos Prats. The second, in October 2003, involved kidnapping and "disappearances" in the "Conference Street" case. However, in a surprise decision in May the Santiago Appeals Court ruled that it was premature to rule on Pinochet's mental condition before his prosecution for the Operation Condor case had even begun. It accepted an argument of the relative's lawyers that assessment of his fitness to stand trial was properly a matter for the trial judge, whereas the immunity issue must be settled solely on the question of whether the accusation was credible and well-founded. This is now the position of the Supreme Court, observes Human Rights Watch.
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