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The BBC's James Reynolds in Santiago
"Many never thought it possible"
 real 28k

Carlos Reyes, Chile Democratico
"I am surprised"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 07:22 GMT 08:22 UK
Pinochet immunity in doubt
Pinochet demonstration
The case has raised strong emotions in Chile
A Chilean court is reported to have decided to strip the country's former military leader, General Augusto Pinochet, of his immunity from prosecution.

The decision would open the way for a trial on charges of human rights abuses.

The pinochet File
No official announcement is expected for some time, but a lawyer close to the case told the BBC that judges had made the decision to lift immunity.

A government spokesman declined to comment, saying it was a matter for the courts.

General Pinochet currently enjoys immunity as a senator-for-life - a position he created for himself when he stood down in 1990.

Pinochet supporters
Pinochet supporters have rallied outside the court
The court, composed of 22 judges, was due to sit on Wednesday - and a decision on the Pinochet case was not expected until the first week of June.

But human rights lawyer, Mrs Carmen Hertz, told the BBC that her own sources from the law courts have already confirmed that General Pinochet has lost his parliamentary immunity.

If the decision is made official, General Pinochet will face trial for allegedly ordering the kidnap and illegal execution of 19 people in the case known as the Caravan of Death.

There are another 105 complaints filed against him in what some observers have described as the Pandora's Box of the Chilean transition to democracy.

History of case
Oct. 1998: Arrested in Britain
Oct 1998: Released over immunity
Nov 1998: Immunity rejected
Dec 1998: British government rejects release
Dec 1998: Immunity decision set aside over possible bias
March 1999: Immunity again rejected
Sept 1999: Extradition hearing begins
Oct 1999: Adjourned over health
March 2000: Government decides against extradition
March 2000: Return to Chile
Opposition politicians are already saying that the decision was expected, given the pressure on the judges by human rights groups and the government.

General Pinochet returned to Chile last month on grounds of ill-health following almost a year and a half under arrest in Britain.

He was greeted not only by crowds of supporters and an army ban, but also by thousands of chanting demonstrators protesting against his return.

The protesters, relatives of the disappeared, left-wing politicians and human rights activists questioned the British government's assessment that the general was not well enough to stand trial.

They argued that from his behaviour back in Chile, he was certainly fit to stand trial in his own country, and a Chilean judge said that he would launch proceedings against the ex-president.

Legal history

From the start, the case against General Pinochet has proved hugely controversial, in Chile and abroad.

Pinochet's return from the UK

The general was originally detained in Britain by police acting on an extradition warrant from Spain, while he was recovering from an operation.

The arrest took the world by surprise, and the case which followed is considered to have broken new legal ground. It is the first time a former head of state has faced criminal proceedings in a foreign country.

Whether or not the general ever does stand trial, human rights activists argue that the proceedings against him have been of huge symbolic importance.

They say the general's experience will deter military dictators worldwide from assuming that they are above the law and can rely on a comfortable retirement abroad or at home after giving up power.

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See also:

27 Apr 00 | Americas
Clashes at Pinochet hearing
20 Jan 00 | The Pinochet file
Pinochet profile: Saviour or tyrant
04 Mar 00 | Americas
Thousands march against Pinochet
08 Mar 00 | Americas
Pressure grows on Pinochet
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