Pinochet may have legal cover in any abuse trials.

Human rights charges against Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet will not likely succeed, observers say, but if it's found that he profited illegally, his supporters would likely turn their backs on him.

As two Chilean judges consider putting ex-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet on trial for human rights abuses and alleged corruption, observers say that despite the crescendo of legal actions, Pinochet will likely remain untouchable on human rights grounds.

But if it's proved that the 88-year old Pinochet profited through illegal activities, what support he has enjoyed from the armed forces and a divided Chilean society will quickly evaporate, they add.

''It's easier for Pinochet's supporters to justify his killing and torturing as being part of a so-called war,'' said political analyst Felipe Portales. ``But the corruption charges, this has no political explanation.''

Medical Factors.

Late last month, Pinochet underwent psychological and neurological examinations by three doctors to determine if the ex-dictator, who suffers from diabetes, arthritis and uses a pacemaker, is ''mentally fit'' to face justice.

The results are expected to be announced sometime this week.

In 2002, similar court-ordered medical tests found him to suffer from a mild case of dementia, protecting him from hundreds of lawsuits for human rights crimes committed during his 1973-90 regime.

Official reports state that 3,197 persons were killed for political reasons and tens of thousands were tortured, jailed or sent into exile during his government.

Judge Juan Guzmán, who temporarily placed Pinochet under house arrest in 2001, is now investigating Pinochet's role in ''Operation Condor,'' a campaign devised by Chile in the 1970s -- and coordinated with military dictatorships from Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay -- to stamp out opponents who had escaped abroad. Twenty-five Chileans were killed as part of that effort, according to court papers.

But Sebastián Brett, the Human Rights Watch representative in Chile, said that it's unlikely that the courts will ever snare Pinochet.

''Though he is a lot less untouchable than he was five years ago, it's very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the courts do not endorse prior rulings on medical grounds,'' said Brett.

Moreover, critics say that President Ricardo Lagos, fearful of confronting the Chilean military and eager to strike deals with the political right, has supported publicly the independence of the courts while working quietly behind the scenes to facilitate a medical excuse.

Guzmán complained in 2001 that members of the government had pressured him to dismiss his investigation of Pinochet as quickly as possible on medical grounds.

In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that disappearance cases must be considered an ongoing offense until the bodies of victims are found. The result was an effective end-run around the 1978 amnesty law, decreed by Pinochet to pardon all crimes committed by the military and their opposition between his Sept. 11, 1973, coup and March 1978.

Mass Disappearances.

Official figures show that 1,102 persons were ''disappeared'' by the Pinochet regime, many of them believed to have been buried in unmarked mass graves or dropped into the ocean.

But in what's seen as an attempt to ease the burgeoning human rights case load in the courts, the State Defense Council, the legal arm of the government, last month recommended that if convincing circumstantial evidence is found showing the victims are in fact dead, the courts should apply the amnesty law.

Brett said that if the courts accept the recommendation, the vast majority of human rights cases slowly working their way through the court system would quickly come to a halt.

'Ultimately, the decision will depend on the Supreme Court, which should, and could, declare the amnesty inapplicable, even if the victims' remains were found,'' he said.

Pinochet's legal troubles over corruption investigations may not get such favorable treatment, say analysts.

A July report by a U.S. Senate subcommittee stated that the Washington-based Riggs Bank had allowed Pinochet in the 1990s to open six accounts valued at more than $8 million and ``set up offshore shell corporations and open accounts in the names of those corporations to disguise his control of the accounts.''

The report shocked Chileans, whose country usually ranks low in the annual corruption surveys by Transparency International, a Germany-based independent group.

Formal investigations were launched almost immediately, and in August Judge Sergio Muñoz questioned Pinochet, family members, friends and business associates.

Last week, Chile's Internal Tax Service filed a criminal complaint over Pinochet's failure to declare the money in his Riggs accounts between 1996 and 2002.

Pinochet was a life-long military man who drew a modest income, but a recent local news report quoted government officials as estimating that he had amassed a fortune totaling some $16 million.

Representatives and relatives claim that Pinochet's wealth stems from savings, donations and successful investments.

Political scientist Guillermo Holzmánn said that if it's proven Pinochet attained his riches through illegal activity, it will be difficult for the armed forces to maintain their loyal support.

''There is a strong Prussian influence over the army that includes principles such as honor and dignity,'' Holzmánn said. ``Pinochet being found guilty of corruption would be unacceptable.''

[Source: By Jimmy Langman, The Miami Herald, Usa, 12Oct04]

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