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Last Updated: Friday, 28 May, 2004, 21:23 GMT 22:23 UK
Analysis: Shock at Pinochet ruling
By Clinton Porteous
BBC, Santiago

Jimena Campos lost her brother in the military coup of 1973. She could barely hold back her emotion after she heard that Augusto Pinochet had been stripped of his legal immunity.

"He is our number one criminal," she said. "We have been fighting for this for 30 years."

Ms Campos was among the dozens of relatives of victims who were at the court and cheered when they heard news of the vote.

A woman holds pictures of the
General Pinochet casts a very long shadow over Chile

Despite her joy, even she admitted it was a surprise.

Almost no-one in Chile expected that the general would lose his legal protection over his role in the regional military crackdown, known as Operation Condor.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, there were some signs that it was coming.

This was the third attempt by human rights lawyers to get General Pinochet stripped of his legal protection.

At the first attempt, four out of 23 judges voted in favour. At the following attempt, eight voted in favour - and finally, on Friday, a majority of 14 voted in favour.

Most people believed the general would live out his final days in peace after the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.

It appears that the general believed this too. And this was probably his greatest mistake.

The key evidence against him was a lengthy television interview he gave to female Cuban-American journalist. It was broadcast on a Miami Spanish-language television channel last November to mark his 88th birthday.

In the interview he spoke fluently, made jokes and strongly defended himself. It caused outrage back in Chile.

Human right lawyers posed one main question to the court: "How can this man - who gives TV interviews like this - be declared mentally unfit to defend himself?"

A majority of judges appear to have agreed with the argument.

Strong opinions

The vote has already sent shock waves through Chile. Afterwards in the court foyer, shouting matches broke out between opponents and supporters of General Pinochet. There will be more of this to come.

He may have been 14 years out of office, but the general casts a very long shadow over Chile. If one scratches the surface of Chilean society, almost everyone has a strong opinion - one way or the other.

Now any sense of closure, and consigning General Pinochet to the history books, has been blown away.

All eyes will be on the Supreme Court and the appeal by his defence lawyers.

The Supreme Court might overturn the ruling, but one thing is for certain - the Pinochet file is open again.

Profile: Augusto Pinochet
28 May 04 |  Americas
Timeline: Chile
17 Jul 02 |  Americas
Country profile: Chile
18 Jul 02 |  Country profiles

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