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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January, 2005, 17:10 GMT
Court backs Pinochet murder trial
General Augusto Pinochet
Pinochet was president of Chile from 1973 to 1990
Chile's Supreme Court has ruled the country's former President Augusto Pinochet is fit to stand trial on murder and kidnapping charges.

It upheld a lower court move to throw out a defence motion arguing Gen Pinochet, 89, was not mentally able to defend himself.

The ruling brings the former military ruler one step closer to trial.

However, Gen Pinochet's defence team will still have other opportunities to block the proposed trial.

October 1998: Police in UK arrest Pinochet on Spanish warrant; long legal battle over fitness for trial
March 2000: Deemed unfit for trial, returns home. Days later effort begins to try him in Chile
August 2000: Supreme Court strips his immunity. Later declared fit to stand trial
July 2001: Charges suspended and later dropped on grounds of health
May 2004: Court strips Pinochet of immunity from prosecution over fresh charges
Dec 2004: Chilean judge indicts Pinochet

The court's split decision - by three votes against two - is seen as a major blow against Gen Pinochet, the BBC's Clinton Porteous in the Chilean capital, Santiago, says.

The initial challenge by the general's defence team was widely seen as one of the best chances of halting the case, our correspondent says.

Tuesday's ruling - which was delayed by almost two weeks - sparked mayhem in the courtroom as relatives of victims started celebrating.

"We are happy, the entire world is happy," Lorena Pizarro, president of an association of relatives of dissidents who perished during Gen Pinochet's rule, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.

"Pinochet cannot continue to live in impunity," Ms Pizarro said.

Gen Pinochet has never been put on trial for human rights violations under his 1973-90 rule, despite several high-profile cases against him.

The matter will now be delivered back to investigating judge Juan Guzman.

There was no immediate reaction from Gen Pinochet's lawyers.

Operation Condor

Last month, Mr Guzman declared Gen Pinochet mentally fit to stand trial, ordering his house detention.

Relatives of the perished dissidents celebrates in Santiago
Relatives of dead dissidents cheered the court's ruling

The former president was also charged over the killing of one Chilean national and the disappearance of nine others during Operation Condor.

This was a joint campaign by South American military governments in the 1970s to hunt down left-wing opponents.

Lawyers for Gen Pinochet say the legal process could kill him.

Gen Pinochet was released from hospital shortly before Christmas after military doctors said he suffered a stroke.

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