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Pinochet beats the rap as court rules he is not fit to stand trial.

SANTIAGO -- Even as protestors took to the street to demonstrate against an appeals court ruling that former dictator Augusto Pinochet is mentally unfit to stand trial on human rights charges, most government officials were breathing a sigh of relief.

The center-left government led by President Ricardo Lagos is no friend of Pinochet. Many government officials and members of the parties in the ruling coalition feel that Pinochet richly deserves to be held accountable for the thousands of cases of summary executions, torture and other crimes committed during his reign. But there is little eagerness for reopening the old wounds such a trial would entail or for a divisive prosecution that would pit the country's generally right-leaning business elite against the government at a time of economic hardship.

The government already is struggling with a sharp decline in popularity caused by a persistent recession. Unemployment is expected to rise above 10% in coming months and downward revisions of growth forecasts have become monthly occurrences. Ironically, the government, which has generally been at odds with business interests, is enjoying a period of productive relations with the private sector and is making progress on a deal that would slash personal tax rates in exchange for moderate corporate tax hikes. Lagos and other officials are working to forge a broad consensus behind the measure, which is intended to boost domestic consumption, and do not want to be drawn into what would surely be a bitter struggle over Pinochet's fate.

The court ruled that the 85-year old retired general, who has had several strokes, suffers from severe dementia and cannot be prosecuted on charges he covered up as many as 75 murders by the "Caravan of Death" army unit, which killed opponents in the years after the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power.

The ruling, which technically suspended the charges, can be appealed. However, even prosecutors say they do not believe the government will press the issue. "I think, unfortunately, this is as far as the Pinochet case goes," said one. Lagos called on Chileans to accept the ruling. The hundreds of other potential cases against Pinochet that lawyers had been researching are now expected to fall apart as well.

Although advocates of trying the general took to the streets to protest the decision and press for an appeal, most demonstrators seemed resigned to the fact that Pinochet is unlikely to stand trial for the human rights violations committed during his 1973-1990 dictatorship. Many take some satisfaction from the fact that he was detained for 16 months in England between 1998 and 2000 after a Spanish judge sought his extradition on human rights charges. He eventually was freed after the British government ruled he was too weak to stand trial.

Human rights investigations are sure to continue, driven in part by the determination of other countries in the region to investigate abuses committed by military regimes under the Plan Condor, a pact between Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Under the terms of the agreement, dissidents living in exile in neighboring nations were extradited secretly back to their own countries, where many were executed or tortured. But these investigations will not be as controversial as a prosecution of Pinochet would have been.
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Title Annotation:former Dictator of Chile Augusto Pinochet
Publication:America's Insider
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Jul 12, 2001
Words:539
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