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The BBC's James Reynolds
"These hearings are taking place amid a new climate in Chile's legal system"
 real 28k

Thursday, 20 July, 2000, 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK
Pinochet 'innocent' of death squad crimes
General Pinochet
Pinochet could face more than 140 criminal complaints
Lawyers for the defence and the prosecution have been arguing their cases at the Chilean Supreme Court on whether the country's former military ruler, General Augusto Pinochet, can be tried for human rights abuses.

On the second of three days of hearings, a defence lawyer said the general was not legally responsible for the actions of an army squad which killed more than 70 opponents of the military government shortly after the coup in 1973.

The pinochet File
If the Supreme Court upholds a lower-court decision which stripped him of his immunity from prosecution - a preliminary step towards a full trial - he will face more than 140 criminal complaints.

The general was originally granted immunity because of his life-long seat in the senate, which he was given in 1980.

'No fair trial'

General Pinochet's defence lawyer, Ricardo Rivadeneira, argued on Thursday that the 1978 amnesty law covered all alleged crimes committed during the early years of the military government, and should apply to the accusations against the general.

Ricardo Rivadeneira
Ricardo Rivadeneira argued that the court has no jurisdiction over Pinochet
Mr Rivadeneira also argued that the Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction over General Pinochet because, as a former head of state, he should first have been impeached by Congress.

Mr Rivadeneira reiterated the claim of his supporters that General Pinochet cannot get a fair trial, because his failing health prevented him from organising a proper defence.

"I myself have not been able to have a direct contact with General Pinochet," Mr Rivadeneira said.

'Full responsibility'

Lawyers for the plaintiffs - relatives of the victims - insisted General Pinochet held absolute power at the time as leader of the four-man junta established after the coup, which toppled Marxist President Salvador Allende.

Anti-Pinochet demonstration
Pinochet opponents: Carrying banners of deposed President Allende
Central to the case against General Pinochet are allegations of his involvement in the so-called "Death Caravan", a military squad which roamed Chile in October 1973 searching for left-wing opponents of the general's regime.

The squad is believed to have killed at least 72 people, mainly dissidents dragged from prisons and summarily executed.

"Pinochet was the top man in the military junta. Remember he himself said that 'no leaf stirred' in the country without him knowing about it,'" said one of the prosecution lawyers, Eduardo Contreras.

In the case before the Supreme Court, there are 146 criminal complaints filed against the former Chilean dictator for deaths and disappearances blamed on his 1973-90 regime.

General Pinochet is not required to appear in court during the current procedures.

Secret police convicted

In a separate development, a Chilean court has sentenced three secret service agents who served under the military government to life in prison for killing a carpenter whom they had framed for the murder of a trade union leader.

The carpenter, Juan Alegria, was found in 1983 with slashed wrists and a suicide note, despite being illiterate.

BBC Santiago correspondent James Reynolds says there have been few previous convictions of former officials of the Chilean military government - a sign that there is a new climate in Chile's legal system.

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See also:

09 Jun 00 | Americas
Pinochet appeal begins
05 Jun 00 | Americas
Pinochet stripped of immunity
04 Mar 00 | Americas
Thousands march against Pinochet
20 Jan 00 | The Pinochet file
Pinochet profile: Saviour or tyrant
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