Arrested in London in 1998 (see Augusto Pinochet Ugarte), Pinochet spent more than 500 days there in detention. He went back to Chile in March 2000.
When Pinochet's was arrested in 1998, the government of Chile requested his release and affirmed its intent to have him tried in Chile. At first sight, several obstacles seemed likely to hinder the holding of such a trial, among them being:
- the law of 18 April 1978 which decreed an amnesty for all acts committed between 11 September 1973 and 10 March 1978;
- the immunity granted to Pinochet as a Member of Parliament and ex-President;
- the dominant position of the armed forces institutionalised by Pinochet himself in the 1981 Constitution which was still in force and pressure from high ranking military who highlighted the potential danger of a trial for the security of the State
These obstacles were in part overcome by legal decisions. Three requests out of four to have immunity lifted were successful. Moreover, the theory of "ongoing offence" as applied to the crime of disappearance enabled circumvention of the application of the Amnesty Law: Indeed, the Supreme Court in its decision of 20 July 1999 qualified the crime of disappearance as a permanent misdemeanour and, as such, not subject to amnesty and imprescriptibility. Furthermore, the unconditional support of the military at the time of Pinochet's return had progressively weakened whilst at the same time a popular movement, increasingly favourable to a trial of the ex-dictator, had grown.
1. First case against Augusto Pinochet concerning the case known as the "Caravan of Death":
On 5 July 2000, the Appeal Court of Santiago decided to remove the parliamentary immunity of Pinochet. This decision was confirmed by the decision of 8 August 2000 of the Supreme Court. Judge Guzman could therefore initiate proceedings.
On 1 December 2000, the judge ordered Pinochet to be held under house arrest after charging him as the mastermind and co-planner of the acts committed by the "Death Caravan". In the indictment the judge held that Pinochet ordered the abduction of 75 persons followed by summary executions and disappearances. An appeal by the defendant attempted to have the decision quashed on the basis of a procedural flaw. In fact, the Code of Penal Procedure requires that the accused be interrogated before his indictment and that, if older than 70, he should be submitted to a medical examination. The indictment and house arrest order was annulled by the Appeal Court that did not take into account in its deliberations, as advocated by Judge Guzman, the interrogation already held in London. On 20 December 2000 the Chilean Supreme Court upheld the decision. This decision was based on a question of procedure and did not prevent the continuation of legal proceedings. The Court in fact granted a delay of 20 days to judge Guzman to proceed with Pinochet’s interrogation.
A first, brief interrogation took place at Pinochet’s residence on 23 January 2001.
The medical results, to which 8 experts contributed, made mention of a «light to moderate senility ». On 29 January 2001, Judge Guzman issued another indictment and another house arrest order. The Appeal Court rejected an appeal by the defence against this decision on 8 March 2001. However the Court re-categorised Pinochet's responsibility for the alleged acts as being one of accessory rather than as mastermind or co-planner as set out by the judge in the act of indictment. Based on this new categorisation, the accused was released on bail on 12 March 2001.
Following a request by the defendant's lawyers, which referred to deterioration in Pinochet's health, the Santiago Appeal Court, on 9 July 2001, decided to temporarily suspend all legal proceedings. Based on the January 2001 medical tests, the Court ruled that Pinochet is “is not in possession of the mental capacity to allow him to enjoy the rights he is entitled to at every stage of the proceedings under the principle of due process”. The Court further pointed out that it offered no opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused but that it conceded the gravity of the charges. A year later, on 1st July 2002, the Supreme Court dropped the charges against Pinochet because of his ill health. This decision effectively barred any proceedings against him with regard to any responsibility he carried for acts committed by the "Death Caravan".
The mental state of Pinochet however was still subject to controversy at the time.
2. Second case: «Operation Condor»
Following an appeal by lawyers of the families of the 19 leftist militants who disappeared between 1973 and 1990, Judge Guzman filed a new petition before the Santiago Appeal Court. The petition was aimed at the removal of Pinochet's incapacity to testify so that he could give an account of his participation in "Operation Condor". To support the claim that Pinochet was mentally fit for trial, Judge Guzman based his request on an interview given by the ex-dictator to a television station on 23 November 2003, in which he stated himself to be in perfectly good health.
In 2002 Pinochet resigned as senator- for- life and thereby was no longer able to benefit from his parliamentary immunity. However Parliament conferred on him immunity as an ex-president. For the fourth time a request to have Pinochet's immunity lifted, was introduced before the Appeals Court. Indeed, the law provides that the immunity of an ex-head of state must be lifted during each case under consideration. A first request to lift immunity had been granted in the case of the "Death Caravan" (cf. above).
In its decision of 28 May 2004, the Santiago Court of Appeals lifted Pinochet's immunity with regard to acts committed under "Operation Condor". By a very small margin the decision was confirmed by the Supreme Court on 26 August 2004 thus opening the way for a potential trial. However, Pinochet's state of health was again invoked to bring proceedings to a close.
Since the Supreme Court confirmed the lifting of Pinochet’s immunity, two further steps in the proceedings relating to "Operation Condor" went against the defence. In the first, the Supreme Court turned down a request to exclude Judge Juan Guzman, on the grounds of his supposed antipathy towards Pinochet. In the second, in an attempt to prove the sound mental state of Pinochet, the plaintiff’s lawyers made a request to examine his will and to interrogate the notary with whom the will had been deposited.
Judge Guzman went ahead with a first interrogation of Pinochet on 25 September 2004 and ordered new medical tests. These concluded that Pinochet suffered a « mild form of sub-cortical vascular dementia ». The parties retained the possibility to lodge an appeal against the medical report.
Judge Guzman rated the mental state of Pinochet as sufficient on 13 December 2004, placed him under house arrest and indicted him. These decisions were confirmed subsequently by the Court of Appeal in Santiago on 20 December 2004 and by the Supreme Court on 3 January 2005. Thus there were no more juridical obstacles to close the investigations and initiate a procedure against Pinochet.
On 10 January 2005 Judge Guzman authorized the release of Pinochet on bail.
On 7 June 2005, a three-member chamber of the Santiago Court of Appeals unanimously decided to discontinue the procedure. The decision was based on the "moderate dementia" of the accused, a defence already sustained by the Supreme Court in 2002. The judges ruled that Pinochet "suffered neurological problems which rendered him incapable to defend himself in a legal procedure." The Supreme Court upheld this decision on 15 September 2005. Pinochet could therefore not be prosecuted anymore in the framework of "Plan Condor", which carried the gravest accusations against him.
3. Third case: the assassination of Carlos Prats:
Following a claim introduced by the daughters of the ex-Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Carlos Prats, the Appeal Court of Santiago removed the immunity of ex-president Pinochet on December 2, 2004. However, the Supreme Court quashed this decision by judgement of March 25, 2005, thus making it impossible to continue criminal proceedings against Pinochet in the Prats case.
Carlos Prats was Augusto Pinochet’s predecessor in the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army. He refused to join the military Coup d’état of 11 September 1973 and subsequently went into exile in Argentina. He was assassinated on 30 September 1974 in Buenos Aires. Seven former members of the army and of the DINA, including its chief Manuel Contreras, had already been charged in this same case.
4. Fourth case: the Colombo Case
In this case, Pinochet was said to have covered up the assassination of 119 members of the MIR, a Chilean leftist revolutionary movement. The victims' bodies were found in Argentina and Brazil in July 1975. At the time, DINA had officially concluded that they had become the victims of a settlement of accounts between Guerrilla movements.
Judge Guzman, who had led investigations against the militaries in this case, had already indicted Manuel Contreras, former head of the secret police under Pinochet, and 15 agents.
On 6 July 2005, following the judge's request, the Santiago Court of Appeals ordered, by 11 votes against 10, the lifting of the immunity attached to Pinochet's position as ex-president. On 14 September 2005, the Supreme Court upheld this decision by 10 votes to 6. This decision paved the way for a possible trial and authorized Judge Victor Montiglio, who took over the file when Judge Juan Guzman retired, to interrogate Pinochet. The Court, however, ordered preliminary medical checks, which could have again allowed Pinochet to avoid a trial.
On 24 November 2005, Judge Victor Montiglio charged General Pinochet in connection with the disappearance of six dissidents arrested by Chile's security services in the course of Operation Colombo.
The same day, Pinochet was put under house arrest.
On 1st February 2006, Santiago's appeals Court ruled that Pinochet was healthy enough to stand trial for alleged human rights abuses stemming from the Colombo Operation.
5. Fifth procedure regarding acts of torture and illegal detention at the Villa Grimaldi.
This investigation evolved around Pinochet’s alleged responsibility for the deaths of 59 people illegally detained at the Villa Grimaldi. From 1973 to 1978, Chilean secret services, the DINA, used the Villa as a detention centre. Officially, 4500 people were confined and mistreated in the Villa and 226 of them died under torture.
On 20 January 2006, a decision by the Court of Appeal of Santiago revoked Pinochet's immunity by a large majority. This is the fifth time around that Pinochet was declared not to be immune despite his former presidential status. The decision was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Chile on 8 September 2006.
On 27 October 2006, a Chilean judge issued an arrest warrant in the "Villa Grimaldi" case.
Augusto Pinochet died on 10 December 2006, putting an end to all legal procedures in Chile and abroad.
Trial Watch would like to remind its users that any person charged by national or international authorities is presumed innocent until proven guilty.