(New York) - Human Rights Watch hailed Friday's decision by a Chilean judge to arrest and try former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Judge Juan Guzman indicted Pinochet on a charge of kidnapping, asking that he be held under house arrest and ordering him to face trial in connection with the "disappearances" of prisoners in the first months his 17-year dictatorship.

"This arrest is a great victory for Pinochet's thousands of victims," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "It does credit to Chilean democracy and to its legal system. Judge Guzman has conducted a very thorough and careful investigation."

Human Rights Watch noted that today's action would not have been possible had British courts not held that Pinochet was not immune from justice.

The cases in Chile against the former dictator gained momentum after U.K. authorities held him for seventeen months under house arrest in Britain while four states sought his extradition. Although Pinochet was returned to Chile in March 2000 on medical grounds, he found himself in a very different country than the one he had left. After years in which justice was a rarity, during 1999 the Chilean courts opened a spate of prosecutions of former generals and lower officers for human rights violations. In July 2000, in another important decision, they sentenced a former secret police agent to life imprisonment for murder. In August, Chile's Supreme Court rejected Pinochet's appeal against a lower court ruling stripping him of his parliamentary immunity.

Argentina has requested the extradition of Pinochet for his suspected role in the 1974 car-bomb murder of Chile's former army chief, Carlos Prats, who opposed Pinochet's coup.

Judge Guzman has ordered medical and neurological tests to determine Pinochet's fitness to stand trial.