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The BBC's James Reynolds
"The news will be a severe blow to Chile's former ruler"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 2 August, 2000, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Pinochet 'loses court battle'
General Pinochet
Pinochet could face more than 140 criminal complaints
Media reports in Chile say the Supreme Court has decided to strip the country's former military leader, General Augusto Pinochet, of his immunity from prosecution.

The decision, which has not been publicly announced, is said to have been carried despite a split among the 20 Supreme Court judges.

If the reports are correct, the way would be open to put the 84-year-old life senator on trial on for alleged human rights abuses linked to his 17-year rule.

More than 3,000 people died or disappeared after the general took power in a military coup in 1973.

History of case
Oct 1998: Arrested in Britain
Oct 1998: Given bail after claiming immunity
Nov 1998: Immunity claim rejected
Dec 1998: Immunity decision set aside over possible bias
March 1999: Immunity claim again rejected
Sept 1999: Extradition hearing begins
March 2000: UK Government rejects extradition
March 2000: Return to Chile

The ruling on the question of immunity has been under discussion by the 20 judges since a court hearing in July.

They announced on Tuesday that the decision would be delayed for several more days.

The reports that the vote had gone against General Pinochet were carried by several radio stations and a local internet newspaper, El Mostrador.

El Mostrador quoted unnamed court sources as saying the judges had voted 14-6 to strip the general of his immunity. Other reports say the vote was closer.

Government and military sources, also quoted by El Mostrador, make the same prediction: a narrow defeat for General Pinochet.

The reports said the judges had decided not to make an announcement until the legal text of the ruling had been written.

Campaigners against General Pinochet have staged more demonstrations outside the court, but say the delay does not concern them.

Anti-Pinochet demonstration
Pinochet opponents: Carrying banners of deposed President Allende
"We have waited for justice for 26 years. We can wait yet another week," said relatives' group spokesman Viviana Diaz.

If the reports of a narrow ruling against General Pinochet are correct, he could face charges relating to more than 140 cases which have been registered by human rights campaigners.

Central to the case are allegations of General Pinochet's involvement in the so-called "Death Caravan" - a military squad which roamed Chile in October 1973 searching for left-wing opponents of the regime.

Summarily executed

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

General Pinochet returned to Chile in March, after a long legal battle in the UK.

He was finally declared too ill to be extradited to Spain to face trial on human rights charges.

Correspondents say many Chileans believe that if he has lost his Supreme Court battle, the ageing general could still be excused on grounds of ill health.

The law in Chile recognises poor mental but not poor physical health as a reason for avoiding trial.

The Supreme Court has so far rejected requests by General Pinochet's lawyers for new medical tests to determine whether he is fit to take the stand.

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