(New York) - Human Rights Watch today expressed dismay over the Santiago appellate court ruling in favor of General Augusto Pinochet, which dismissed criminal charges filed against Pinochet on December 1. In a unanimous (3-0) decision, the Fifth Chamber of the Santiago Appeals Court granted a habeas corpus writ challenging Pinochet's indictment for ordering kidnappings and extrajudicial executions following the 1973 military coup. The prosecution team has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide the case in the coming weeks.

While this decision is regrettable, it is by no means the end of the road for the Pinochet case," said José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "The ruling was made on technical grounds, not on the merits. The Chilean Supreme Court has already determined that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Pinochet is guilty of the atrocities alleged."
The key issue on appeal was whether Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia had followed correct procedures before issuing the indictment, which include a requirement that the defendant be allowed to make a preliminary statement before being charged. Judge Guzmán argued that Pinochet's 1999 reply to a questionnaire the judge sent while Pinochet was in detention in London (in which Pinochet protested his innocence and refused to answer the questions) was tantamount to a preliminary declaration. The Appeals Court rejected this argument.

If the Supreme Court confirms the appellate ruling, Judge Guzmán will be able to reinstate the charges once he has questioned Pinochet. Pinochet's defense counsel, however, are insisting that medical tests be carried out before such questioning takes place, in the hope that tests will find that Pinochet is physically unfit to stand trial.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that politicians opposed to the Pinochet prosecution have mounted a campaign in recent weeks to question the integrity of judges and government officials who have played a key role in human rights investigations. The judges under scrutiny include Supreme Court Justice Luis Correa Bulo, who had been selected to evaluate whether Pinochet should be extradited to Argentina in the 1974 murder case in Buenos Aires of former army commander-in-chief Carlos Prats.

The Supreme Court, which is investigating influence-trafficking allegations against Justice Correa, recently removed him from all judicial duties, although these same allegations had been previously rejected by the Chilean Congress following an unsuccessful impeachment motion.

Attorney Clara Szczaranski, President of the Council for the Defense of the State, which is a party in the Pinochet case, has been publicly questioned for allegedly mixing her private practice with official duties. Judge Guzmán received a written reprimand from the Supreme Court for writing a letter of support to Szczaranski.

Another extremely worrisome signal is the fact that, under pressure from the armed forces, President Lagos has called a meeting of the National Security Council (on which the armed forces have half the votes) as soon as the Supreme Court verdict is known. "The planned meeting indicates to the courts that Pinochet's indictment is considered an issue of national security, putting enormous pressure on them," said Vivanco. "Taken together, these events show how vulnerable the Chilean judiciary continues to be to political interference, even after many formal obstacles to Pinochet's prosecution have been removed."