(London) - Human Rights Watch today denounced suggestions by Augusto Pinochet's lawyers that the ex-dictator could be prosecuted in Chile.

In arguments before a five-member panel of the House of Lords, which is ruling on whether Pinochet has immunity from extradition, Pinochet's lawyer Clare Montgomery stated on Tuesday that "a forum is available to deal with the matter [in Chile]."

"There is no chance that Pinochet will be prosecuted by a Chilean court," said Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch. "This is a cynical ploy to get Pinochet back home where he can be shielded from justice."

At least eleven cases now in Chilean courts raise the issue of Pinochet's culpability for human rights violations. But as a senator-for-life, a position he claimed as part of his bargain for leaving office in 1990, Pinochet is protected from such prosecutions. Theoretically, the Chilean Supreme Court could strip him of his immunity, if it found him guilty of criminal acts. But since the military left office in 1990, the court has never deprived a member of congress of immunity.

If, by some miracle, Pinochet suddenly were indicted for his crimes, a military tribunal would surely claim jurisdiction in the case, arguing that Pinochet's crimes were committed as part of his military service. In past conflicts over jurisdiction, Chile's Supreme Court has readily acceded to such demands from the military. Military courts are staffed by current and former military officers whom Pinochet either promoted or appointed.

In April 1978, the Chilean military granted itself a general amnesty from prosecution and punishment for its crimes, and in 1990, the Supreme Court upheld the measure's constitutionality. The amnesty covers the period when most of the worst abuses took place, from the coup in September 1973 to March 1978. The official Chilean truth commission has said that more than 3,100 people were executed or "disappeared" during the years of military dictatorship, 1973-1990.

The Chilean government has touted a recent Supreme Court decision that the Geneva Conventions could prevail over the self-amnesty in one investigation of alleged war crimes committed by the military before 1978. But in the Chilean legal system, this single case does not establish any precedent for subsequent legal action. Indeed, in a later case, the Supreme Court again upheld the amnesty above international human rights law.

Out of several hundred military officers who might be implicated in cases of serious human rights abuse, only three have been prosecuted. The 1978 amnesty expressly excluded the car-bombing murder of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and U.S. citizen Ronni Karpen Moffitt in Washington, D.C. in 1976. A U.S. grand jury indicted four members of Pinochet's security police, the DINA, including the agency's chief of operations Army Brig. Pedro Espinoza, and its director Army Gen. Manuel Contreras Sep·lveda, who reported directly to General Pinochet. In 1995, under strong U.S. pressure, both Contreras and Espinoza went to prison in Chile for the crime. In addition, one member of the military is in jail for an unrelated human rights crime committed in 1983.

Even Pinochet's family members appear untouchable in Chile. In the early 1990's, government auditors were investigating Pinochet's son, Augusto Pinochet Hiriart, in a $7 million corruption case involving military-run businesses. In May 1993, citing discontent over issues including this investigation, the army carried out a threateningly public military exercise in Santiago, the national capital. The then-government subsequently signed an agreement giving the army some power to monitor the Pinochet investigation. Under intense military pressure, the government of President Eduardo Frei was obliged to order the investigation closed in July 1995. Frei cited "national interest" as the reason for doing so.